According to the Greater Boston Food Bank’s annual study on the state of hunger in Massachusetts for 2023, 48% of people in Hampden County face food insecurity.

Overall food insecurity in the commonwealth is continuing to increase with 1.9 million adults and 34% of the state’s households reporting food insecurity. The data revealed that across the state there are racial disparities with 62% of American Indian/Alaska Native households, 56% of Hispanic households and 51% of Black households reporting food security. In addition to racial disparities, 56% of LGBTQ+ households also reported food insecurity.

To help contextualize this data, Reminder Publishing reached out to local organizations to see how they are tackling growing food insecurity in Hampden County.

The Community Survival Center in Indian Orchard has seen firsthand the jump in the number of families and individuals seeking food assistance. Executive Director Mary Cassidy said, “We’ve been seeing more first-time families using the Survival Center than we have in a long time. There were 44 new families just last month, some of them quite large families.” She noted that several of the families were from the Wayfinders Residential Resource Center in Springfield. “The shelter houses many refugees from Haiti,” she said.

The Community Survival Center’s emergency food pantry serves Ludlow, Wilbraham and Hampden, as well as the 16 Acres and Indian Orchard neighborhoods of Springfield. It is also open to eligible individuals aged 60 and older anywhere in Hampden County.

Cassidy cited inflation and utilities as a cause of the increase in people needing assistance. “Prices for everything are going up, so even if you’re food costs the same, your light bill is higher, your heat is higher.” These influences can mean people to have to choose between groceries and utilities.

This is borne out by the data. The Greater Boston Food Bank’s report reflects that 69% of respondents reported choosing between food and utilities. The same percentage of people said they have had to decide whether to purchase food or pay for transportation. Coming in a close third with 62% are people who have weighed food and housing costs.

Catherine Lynn from GBFB said and one of the questions on the survey was focusing on a solution by involving those who said they were food insecure. Food-insecure families report needing average of only $60 more per week to achieve food security or $2,000 per year.

Lynn added, “One of [the] biggest answers from the report was adjusting cost living, higher waged jobs, transportation, some of these things that we are root causes to hunger in terms of what’s driving people and forcing people to make choices. The less choices people have to make and that’s what we saw in the results is going to be helpful for them to be able to afford the food that they need for them and their family.”

Cassidy said that the Community Survival Center itself has not had to make many of those tradeoffs. “We are fortunate in that 90% of the food we distribute is from donations, from faith groups, the Big Ys in the area.” The Community Survival Center also receives frozen meat and produce from Spoonfuls, a statewide food recovery organization. Further, the center is often the beneficiary of food drives and community gardens donations, such as Wilbraham’s Mile Tree Elementary School kindergarten garden, which will be donating its crop to the center later this month.

Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Executive Director Andrew Morehouse saw Greater Boston Food Bank’s annual study and said it was alarming to see the level of insecurity across Massachusetts.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is in Chicopee but provides food to members in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. Morehouse said he has also seen the number of those looking for help with food insecurity rising based on the data at the food bank.

Morehouse added, “Across all four counties of Western Massachusetts we partner with over 180 local food pantries, meal sites, shelters and other food assistance programs. We are a food warehouse, resource, education and advocacy center and we distribute about 85% of all the food through this vast food assistance program.”

Besides looking at the Greater Boston Food Bank’s annual study, Morehouse said they look at their own data and can see there is an increasing problem. He added, “That’s direct information that we receive from the pantries and meal sites because the reality is hard to tell. One never knows really who might be food insecure or facing hunger and we’ll never know about it because they don’t seek help or they’re not captured in reports. To be consistent with our own way of tracking food insecurity, this is how we look at it.”

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts looks at the number of individuals served every month and how many meals they are providing every month.

Those that receive food from this program send data back to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to show the number of individuals that receive food assistance each month. Morehouse said the most recent information that came from February, the food bank aided almost 116,000 people or the equivalent of about 1.2 million meals.

Morehouse added that was a 40% increase in the number of individuals that they provided food to compared to February 2023.

“Clearly a 40% increase in a 12-month period from February 2023 to February 2024 is striking so it would suggest that the Greater Boston Food Bank’s report is reflecting that dramatic need,” Morehouse added.

In addition to distributing and providing food to different organizations in the area like senior centers, Morehouse said the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts also helps assist individuals in joining the SNAP program, provide food assistance navigators, conduct workshops and have a mobile food truck that visits different sites in all for counties.

For the past few years, the findings have been used to elevate the voices of people experiencing food insecurity and advance community-informed programs and policies that address hunger.

Lynn from GBFB said year after year the studies release a similar result and added, “For us it’s staggering but it’s also validating what we’re seeing day to day at our 600 partners throughout our eastern Massachusetts network. Everyone is seeing more and more need.”

The report is also important to Lynn to show people how they can help or receive help from multiple organization across the state.

“Food insecurity exists in every single county, every single town in Massachusetts and I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that even though the [coronavirus] pandemic has sort of ended, food insecurity remains so we’re going to need continued support and people to stay with programs like ourselves and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and really advocating. Whether it’s volunteer or donating money or donating your time or food or just using your voice to advocate for the problem or sharing this data, that’s what we’re hoping comes from this report,” Lynn added.

The research was led by GBFB’s Senior Health and Research Advisor and Pediatric Nutrition Director at Mass General for Children Lauren Fiechtner and developed with input from state, community and healthcare partners, including GBFB’s Health and Research Advisory Council.

From November 2023 to March 2024, GBFB conducted an anonymous online survey of more than 3,000 adults in Massachusetts. The survey included quotas for income, gender, race, ethnicity, age, education, and region to ensure representation of historically unheard voices.

Lynn added, “What we found is that people tend to be a little more honest when they’re filling out an anonymous survey versus potentially getting a phone call from the federal government. It leaves them a little more free to honest about their answers.”