Food Bank to build new home at South Bay

It doesn't look like much now, but for the 83,000 people in the Boston area without a regular source for food, the nearly three-acre gravel lot baking under the summer sun along I-93 is long overdue.

The South Bay site will support the Greater Boston Food Bank's new 110,000 square-foot distribution center, slated for completion in winter 2008-2009, replacing the current warehouse across the street that can no longer accommodate the Commonwealth's growing hunger problem.

The food bank moves 26 million pounds of food annually to more than 600 homeless shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens and other relief agencies throughout eastern Massachusetts, and this food ultimately reaches more than 321,000 low-income people a year, or seven percent of the population of the food bank's coverage area.

In Dorchester, there are 103 hunger-relief agencies partnering with the food bank that distribute 2,880,630 pounds of food per year.

While this sounds like an enormous amount of food, it is not enough.

The number of weekly recipients throughout eastern Massachusetts has doubled in the last ten years, and to keep up the food bank has had to boost food distribution from 9.7 million pounds in 1997 to 26 million today. It distributed only five million pounds in 1990.

"The Greater Boston Food Bank is now providing for twice the number of people as a decade ago without a significant change to our current facilities," said Catherine D'Amato, president and CEO of the food bank, in a press release earlier this month. "This new distribution center will allow us to meet the increasing demand for hunger-relief services, while improving our ability to provide more nutritious foods to those in need."

The nutrition element figured heavily into the new $30 million facility since the current one has had to turn down perishables due to its lack of refrigerator and freezer space.

Not only will the new facility have a 50-million-pound capacity and a 15-year growth plan, it will have more room for fruits and dairy products and an 80 percent increase in freezer storage.

Despite the $17 million in private and corporate donations for the "Fighting Hunger, Feeding Hope" campaign, as the new warehouse project is known, the food bank only sought expansion after visiting Beacon Hill last year with a startling hunger study.

The study found that a single parent with two children in the Boston area must make $58,000 a year to meet basic needs like housing, utilities, education, transportation, and food. But working at $7.50 an hour only brings in around $15,000 a year, meaning minimum wage families often have to decide between food and rent, or food and the electricity bill.

"People constantly have to make choices here," said food bank spokesperson Stephanie Nichols, who added that Boston's expensive housing, cold winters and high heat bills, and its distance from the country's Bread Bowl all make local residents hard-pressed to spend freely. "Sometimes people question hunger's existence here, but once it's explained, we generally get the support we need."

Since Nichols said hunger is a "bi-partisan issue," the bank had politicians' ears last year, and the state Legislature subsequently approved a $6.5 million budget increase via the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. This brought the food bank's "core food line item" to $12 million for the FY2007. The $12 million is for food only and excludes operational costs around $1 million, according to Nichols.

Along with the increased funding, the city sold what was once the site of the Boston municipal incinerator at 70 South Bay Ave. to the food bank at fair-market value. Years of pollution, however, left the triangular gravel lot a brownfield, so the food bank allocated part of the projected $30 million to rehabilitate the land during construction.

The new "green" warehouse will also use solar walls, a white roof to mitigate the building's temperature, skylights, and circulation-friendly fans.

"The food bank feeds thousands of people a week and is dangerously close to having to turn hungry people away because the operation has outgrown its present location," said Senate President Robert Travaglini in a press release in January 2006. "We anticipate a big jump in the need for their services because of spiraling energy and health costs and we want to help them meet that demand."

For the six years prior to this land sale and the budget jump, Beacon Hill had level funded the food bank at $6 million, but the 2006-hunger-study-induced funds hike meant the food bank could then provide a healthier array of food to local agencies, and the need to preserve this food is central to the food banks's current expansion.

In his proposed budget this year, Gov. Deval Patrick recommended cementing the $12 million level of funding, but the House wants $10 million and the Senate $10.5 million.

A conference committee is in the works and should resolve the issue in the coming weeks, according to Nichols.

Although the new funding and building seem like good news, Nichols points out the tragic irony of expansion: "The fact that we're building this is kind of sad," she said, adding that the new warehouse is a response to a much larger, "depressing" problem that more than 25 million Americans sought food assistance in 2005, according to America's Second Harvest, the nation's chief food bank.

"Our long term goal is to close up shop," Nichols said when asked what the next step was for the food bank. "Our dream is to go out of business."