Pressure grows on local food pantries : Yawkey Center cutback has widespread impact

Beatrice Burton works to organize products at the Codman Square Food Pantry: Photo courtesy DotWell.Beatrice Burton works to organize products at the Codman Square Food Pantry: Photo courtesy DotWell.

In the first of a two-part series, Chris Harding looks at the challenges facing Dorchester's increasingly patronized food pantries.

No one knows exactly how many food pantries there are in Dorchester, but one thing is very clear: The number of problems accessing these resources and keeping them running is spiraling.

"Our numbers have tripled since Catholic Charities moved from Bird Street here to the new Yawkey Center in January of 2006," reports Beth Chambers who oversees the Columbia Road food pantry. "And there's no sign on door or publicity that we even have a food pantry. It's all word of mouth."

The Yawkey Center served over 700 families in December 2008, but has had to limit visits to once every other month.

Project Bread's FoodSource Hotline, (1-800-645-8333), the most frequently used phone number for those seeking food, refers to 21 sites in Dorchester, according to Director of Communication, Rita Guastella. She adds, "The hungry person in Dorchester can also be served by Boston agencies [of which there are 91]. We try to refer people to the 'closest' agency that would be open so people will not waste money on transportation.

While it is by far the most nearly complete reference around, the FoodSource database is made up largely of places supplied by the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB). Some independent church pantries and those that work with other free food "wholesalers" aren't included for a variety of reasons.

An organization distributing food to the needy cannot impose requirements of religious involvement or attendance to receive food. Only those qualifications imposed by federal, state and city agencies determine who can or cannot receive food. The distributing group can set the day, time and place for food to be dispensed. However, limiting the publicity about the pantry's hours - or even word of its existence - can effectively narrow the people served to the organization's target population, whether it be by language spoken or by membership to a particular congregation.

Calls to the hotline for information about food pantries are traditionally referred and responded to as emergency situations. People are directed to a neighborhood facility where on one morning or afternoon a week they can get a pre-packaged bag with food for a couple of days.

The tragic new reality is that many local food pantries find themselves now saddled with burden of trying not just to provide a care package here and there to tide a caller over for a few days, but to keep an ever-growing number of families' home pantries stocked with staples for the foreseeable future. Dorchester churches and community and social service agencies are buckling under the pressure of trying to address this chronic and still-rising need.

"I hate to say this, but poverty in Dorchester is a growth industry," observes Rev. John Odams, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in Uphams Corner. He has been involved with food pantries for the last eight years and like many others has seen a doubling in demand for the free and decreased cost food programs. His church, which distributed bags to 200 visitors last month, requires a referral each time a person or family visits.

"While the Greater Boston Food Bank keeps up the supply," Odams says, "the limiting factor is the number of volunteer hours required to pick up and deliver the food from the food bank, sort into bags, and handle distribution during pantry hours."

In contrast, Michelle Rue, Director of Health, Education and Outreach for Dotwell, estimates her two agencies' sites could distribute twice as much as the GBFB rations out. Rue oversees both the Codman Square Food Pantry, which feeds 900 to 1,000 families each month, and the Dorchester House pantry, which can see as many as 1,200 food-seekers.

"We have on average 80 to 100 new families requesting food each month," Rue states. "When I order Parmalat milk from the GBFB each week, the computer limits me to 5 cases with 12 cartons each. Then I have to figure out how to distribute 60 cartons among 200 families."

The Red Cross, whose facility at 1033 Mass Avenue is by far the biggest food pantry in the city (helping 4,000 people each month), assists some pantry managers by helping transport food from the GBFB to their front door. Red Cross limits its delivery to Dotwell locations to 3,000 pounds, but Rue figures her facilities could easily distribute 5,000 pounds each. "We often run out," she says regretfully, "or we can't offer people full bags."

It is painful and frustrating for caring staff and volunteers to have to limit what they offer or to package items they know clients may not like.

Given the ethnic diversity of Dorchester, many immigrant pantry visitors balk at Spaghetti-Os, and press for garden produce, which is more costly and harder to keep fresh. Overburdened volunteers and staff can resent what may be perceived as contentious, ungrateful, or "entitled" patrons.

Patrons, for their part, complain that most pantries are open only for an hour or two one day a week - and almost never on the weekend when most people have fewer conflicts with their job schedule. Language barriers and the personalities and burnout of pantry staff can all enter into the equation. Further complicating matters, the poor tend not to have cars, so the programs near public transportation are hit more often than more out-of-the-way ones.

Many Dorchester residents have limited cooking facilities and/or cooking experience. Over Thanksgiving free fresh turkeys with fixings were handed to folks who had never prepared a bird or don't have access to a conventional oven. A surprising number of Dorchesterites subsist with just a can opener and a fork. A more recent complication is that inaccurate information continues to be disseminated. Some Dorchester-oriented websites, for example, still list pantries like those connected with Little House, Log School and St. Ann's, all of which have closed in the last year or so.

Unfortunately, no one really has a clear overall perspective on the Dorchester pantry scene. For example, two pantries which work out of the same address had no idea of the scope of each other's work. Even the heads of the biggest pantries admit to having only a vague sense of how their program compares in size, services and operational practices with other neighborhood programs.

Despite this state of affairs, undaunted Dorchester residents and agencies are responding heroically to the crisis - often in ingenious new ways.

Next Week: A look at some of the creative ways local food pantries are meeting the heightened demand. Chris Harding can be reached at news@dotnews.com.