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Food banks sound alarm on child hunger as Covid crisis drags on

One county in Massachusetts has experienced a projected 168 percent increase in child hunger since 2018.
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WEYMOUTH, Mass. — On a recent Saturday, Shana Savage pulled her car into the line of vehicles snaking their way through the Old South Union Church parking lot. Savage gave birth to her second child this summer. With her husband out of work, they've been struggling to feed their two little boys — ages 6 months and 18 months — let alone themselves.

"Things are really, really tough right now," Savage said as volunteers from the Weymouth Food Pantry loaded a couple of boxes of food into her trunk. "We've been hungry a lot. Without this food bank, we'd probably not eat some nights."

The Savage family is among hundreds of thousands across the country struggling to put enough food on the table during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Image: Shana Savage
"We've been hungry a lot. Without this food bank, we'd probably not eat some nights," said Shana Savage.NBC News

More than 50 million people living in America, including 17 million children, are likely to experience food insecurity by the end of the year, according to Feeding America, the country's largest anti-hunger organization. That amounts to 1 in 6 Americans and 1 in 4 children — an increase of nearly 50 percent over last year.

Catherine D'Amato, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said that in her 40 years of working in food banks, the need has never been greater.

"I've been through plenty of disasters ... hurricanes and floods," D'Amato said, but "we haven't seen it so pervasive," with every city, every state, every country involved.

Before the pandemic, the Greater Boston Food Bank was providing about 550 food pantries with about a million pounds of food a week, D'Amato said. Now, deliveries have swelled to 2.5 million pounds of food shipped weekly from its massive and meticulously organized warehouse in South Boston.

One of the areas it serves is Norfolk County, where Weymouth is located. The county has a distinction no one would want: a projected 168 percent rise in child hunger since 2018, according to Feeding America, the biggest increase in the country.

While the pandemic didn't cause the nation's hunger problem, it has made things much worse.

Pam Denholm, the executive director of the Weymouth Food Pantry, said the pressure on pantries has greatly intensified since March.

"The demand has increased dramatically," Denholm said. "All across America, we have these middle-class communities that are being deeply affected."

Lines are filled with people coming for the first time, many of whom have lost their jobs or are working reduced hours and are ashamed to be asking for help, Denholm said.

"We have a large portion of our population who work in the service industry," Denholm said. "I'm talking restaurants, hairdressers, beauticians, nail salons — all these kinds of mom-and-pop stores and mom-and-pop shops and family-run shops that are the most greatly affected right now."

Not far away at the Medway Village Church Food Pantry, director Susan Dietrich said it's much the same.

IMAGE: Susan Dietrich
"We have seen so many new families coming in," said Susan Dietrich.NBC News

"We have seen so many new families coming in, and I will tell you probably the most difficult thing I've seen throughout this pandemic are the families that come and bring their children," Dietrich said. "And to see a mom walk through the door with her three little kids, and they're looking around."

Dietrich paused, her eyes filling with tears.

"And mom's struggling," she added. "She's never done this before, either. So she's trying to keep it together for her children. And she's trying to make sure she can continue to put food on that table. That's something that really, really hits you."

It's something Yahaira Lopez knows about firsthand. She is raising her twin 11-year-old boys, both with unique learning needs, in Randolph.

IMAGE: Yahaira Lopez with her sons
Yahaira Lopez with her sons.Courtesy Yahaira Lopez

"I kind of always say my house is like a bag of Skittles, you know — it bursts," she said. "It's a fun, chaotic house."

Two years ago, Lopez co-founded a community food pantry after she noticed that many in her town needed help with groceries. Now that she is laid off from her crisis intervention job, she said, she sometimes needs food from the pantry for her own family.

She said dipping into the food supply at the pantry she helped create has been stressful, as she's worried about depriving others.

"I went to college, and you think: 'I went to college. I have this degree. I'm going to get this top-notch job,'" Lopez said. "And then realizing that in this pandemic, I'm no different than so many families throughout America."

IMAGE: Yahaira Lopez
Yahaira Lopez working at the pantry.Courtesy Yahaira Lopez

Lopez recounted her predicament with bursts of wry laughter, but she admitted that the pandemic has sometimes left her in tears.

"The issue with being a parent is that you literally don't have time to cry," Lopez said. "Because the minute you break down, your whole house is going to break down."

So Lopez does her crying where her children can't see her — in the bathroom.

But there are people trying to help.

Denholm, the Weymouth Food Pantry director, choked up thinking about one of them: an elderly woman, in her late 80s or early 90s, who lives on a limited income and has been depending on the food bank to supplement her groceries.

Early on in the pandemic, the woman called and said she had noticed that the grocery stores were empty and said "there has to be a family in Weymouth who doesn't have food," Denholm said.

Denholm broke down as she recalled what the elderly woman said next: "If you could please give my food to a family who needs it."

"I mean, who does that?" Denholm said. "Who doesn't have enough for themselves and phones and says: 'There's children who are hungry. Please give them my order'?"

Others have also stepped up to help. Contributions to food banks are soaring. After having seen a story on "NBC Nightly News" featuring the Greater Boston Food Bank, one viewer sent two tractor-trailer loads to help, containing 44 pallets of food.

Back in Medway, Dietrich, the pantry director, said she hopes the government will do more. The uncertain fate of the stimulus package Congress passed last week raises concerns that more families will go hungry.

"Food insecurity is absolutely a need that we need to address," she said. "Our government has put a Band-Aid on it."

Dietrich said that while programs like the government-run SNAP food assistance program help, volunteer efforts shouldn't be seen as the solution.

"This is not how this is supposed to be. And the stigma that people feel, that they are made to feel less than, that they are made to feel like they need to beg for food, is not OK," she said. "And we need to do better, all of us, working together."

Dietrich noted the creation of coronavirus vaccines.

"We are able to solve problems," she said. "We just found a vaccine for a novel coronavirus in less than one year because the entire world was working toward one purpose.

"Imagine what we could do if the world got together and said, 'We need to end food insecurity.' We need to look at all systems that we have in place for how we distribute and manage food and turn it on its head. Because it's not OK that people can go without food," she said.

The vaccines rolled out across the country last week, raising hope that the pandemic might soon end.

But D'Amato, of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said hunger is "a problem that cannot be cured by an inoculation."

"And that means we have to be serious about how we look at it and ensure that Americans are lifted towards financial independence," she said.

D'Amato said that for the many households only one unexpected bill away from insolvency, the pandemic has been a "tipping point."

But she said she believes that even though hunger is a difficult problem, it isn't insoluble. "It simply takes the political will and individual will to make this problem go away," she said.

Meanwhile, the trucks continue to roll out of their Boston warehouse loaded with food destined to fill thousands of empty bellies, many belonging to children too young to understand that Santa won't be able to fix everything that is broken this year.