Pandemic Inspires New Approaches to Food Insecurity in Cambridge

September 12, 2022

Food costs and unemployment soared in Massachusetts during the COVID-19 pandemic, putting many more people at risk for food insecurity. As many as 1 in 8 Cambridge residents were food insecure in 2021.

From March – June 2020, while many pantries remained closed, the City’s Council on Aging partnered with Food for Free on the Community Food Line, which delivered over 1,000 meals to seniors and immunocompromised residents. In December 2020, Cambridge Public Health Department continued efforts to help residents who were in home isolation or in quarantine for a week or longer and could not access food.

“These residents had no way to get out to food pantries or grocery stores, and paid home delivery was too costly,” said Rachael Cross, MS, RD, LDN, a Cambridge Public Health Department nutritionist. “Cambridge needed a system that could identify COVID positive residents at risk of food insecurity and get groceries and supplies quickly delivered to their homes.”

The Health Department teamed up with Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee (CEOC) and Food For Free. Within four weeks, the group had launched such a system. Public health contact tracers identified residents with food needs during routine COVID-19 “check in” calls. The information was shared electronically with CEOC staff who then packaged food, gift cards, and other supplies. Food For Free made the home deliveries.

“I was so sick, I couldn’t shop, I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t do anything,” said a Cambridge woman who got COVID-19 last fall and received a food package from the program. “This was a great help, financially and emotionally.”

So far, over 180 Cambridge households received food packages through this program, which was honored with a 2022 Innovative Practice Award from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

The pandemic shed light on hunger in Cambridge and the need to strengthen the City’s emergency food system to meet new demand.

In 2021, the Health Department and CEOC set out to improve operations of the Cambridge Food Pantry Network, which currently includes seven pantries that serve several thousand residents annually.

“Respect and dignity are so important to our clients,” said Rachel Plummer, author of the 2021 Cambridge Food Pantry Network evaluation report and CEOC’s Director of Programs and Public Policy.

When CEOC opened its North Cambridge food pantry in fall 2021, it incorporated many recommendations from the evaluation report. The larger space meant that fewer clients had to line up outside. The pantry offered extended hours and clients could choose their own food from the shelves.

Food For Free also revamped systems, recruited more volunteers, and created new home delivery programs. In January 2021, the agency launched Just Eats to address the overwhelming demand for food. The organization initially planned to distribute food boxes to 500 families in the Greater Boston area weekly, but the need was so great that Food For Free is currently distributing boxes to over 4,000 families per week.

To further support this effort, the City allocated American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to Food for Free.

Need Food?

To volunteer with or donate to a Cambridge food agency or pantry, please contact groups in the Cambridge Food Resource Guide.

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