“A lot of people in low-paying jobs assume they’re not eligible,” McAleer said. “This is frankly not true, there are a lot of people who work and who don’t earn enough to get by.”
Even though SNAP registrations have increased during the pandemic – they were 27.5% higher in June 2021 than they were in May 2019 – they remain significantly underutilized, according to the study.
There is still a pool of 659,340 eligible but unenrolled people, largely made up of people who do not know or understand the program, assume they are not eligible, fear stigma, or think they are withdrawing from it. advantages. someone who might need it more, the study showed.
As for those who might think that reaping the benefits is depriving someone else who may need them most, the program was designed to expand during downturns and retract when the economy improves. , McAleer said.
The study proposes two immediate policy changes.
At the federal level, SNAP benefits should be increased to allow people to cope. At the state level, people eligible for Medicaid should automatically be eligible for SNAP.
In response to “food insecurity fueled by the pandemic,” this week the USDA announced the largest permanent increase in benefits since the program began. Starting in October, more than 950,000 Massachusetts residents will see their benefits increase by an average of $ 36 per person each month.
“Food insecurity is a silent problem,” said Catalina Lopez-Ospina, director of the Office of Food Access in Boston. “We need to normalize this conversation. “
Acting Mayor Kim Janey recently announced $ 1.9 million in community grants as part of the federal stimulus package to improve access to food.
Before the pandemic, 8.2% of Massachusetts households were food insecure, according to Project Bread. The food crisis peaked at the start of the pandemic, with 19.6% of households estimated to be food insecure in spring 2020, the study showed.
“The coronavirus pandemic has fueled a hunger crisis like no other in our lives,” according to Project Bread.
Being hungry has lasting consequences, especially in growing children, McAleer said. From February to June of this year, the average percentage of food insecure households with children was 15.9 percent. In July, it had risen to 17.2%.
The pandemic has made it harder for Amber Holden, a mother of three who lives in Jamaica Plain, to feed her family because schools that provide meals were not always open.
“At school, they ate breakfast and lunch, so the food would last longer in the house,” Holden said by phone Wednesday.
But now, the $ 535 she receives in SNAP benefits each month runs out by week two, Holden said. Things will improve when school resumes – Holden may share the duty of providing meals and having time to find a job – but in seeking employment, Holden will have to find childcare for his 4-month-old son.
“Ideally, I would like to spend more time with him,” she said, “but it gets to the point where I have to go to work so my baby has a roof over our heads.”
“As a mom, I have to put my desires aside to take care of [my children’s] needs, ”she added. “Right now they need food in their stomachs. “
Hungry children don’t concentrate well in class, visit the nurses’ office more, have lower test scores, lower graduation rates and lower success as adults, said McAleer of Project Bread. .
Hungry adults face more chronic disease and higher mortality, the advocate said.
Not just people of color in Massachusetts disproportionately affected by food insecurity, but minority households recover from the pandemic much more slowly than white households, according to the study.
From December to May, one in seven white households with children has experienced food insecurity. For black and Latino households with children, the rate was one in three.
Jessica Hernandez, 44, of Lowell, relied more on pantries during the pandemic in part because the conventional shopping experience has become more difficult for low-income people.
“Everything is more expensive. What was a dollar is now worth $ 3.4, ”Hernandez said. “And sometimes you need pasta, and the pantry is more likely to have it than the store.”
It is difficult for some to admit that they are struggling to feed their families, and others believe they will be seen as the system’s living picnics or as immigrants who failed the American Dream, said. the defenders.
Several first-time visitors to the Greenfield Center for Self-Reliance seem uncomfortable asking for food, said Charles Cox, 52, a visitor to the pantry for years.
“It’s more of a shame that they are getting on their own,” the Greenfield resident said over the phone. “It’s something they didn’t want to do.”
The majority of people who started using the pantry during the pandemic are still showing up for food, Cox said.
In Boston, the new community grants will fund “de-stigma activities” and “a fairer food system”.
“In Boston, we know that access to food is essential for the well-being of our residents,” Janey said in a statement. “As we continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, I urge local nonprofits and Boston residents to apply for this funding to help expand access to food, as well as to support education on food aid resources. “
Tonya Alanez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez. Jack Lyons can be contacted at email@example.com.