Demand Grows at Food Bank as State Unemployment Rate Soars

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Volunteers look over bags of food ready to give away. COURTESY PHOTO

The pantry is open to all in need. The hours are Wednesdays, 6 to 8 p.m., and Fridays, 9 to 11 a.m.

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When an older man was spotted allegedly stealing ripening vegetables from a local garden, people wondered if he was taking the food because he was hungry.

With COVID – 19 still on a deadly rampage across the globe, food banks around the Easten region are seeing a surge in household requests for help with food. “With rising unemployment and the loss of school meals, our neighbors across Eastern Massachusetts are facing a summer of hunger and hardship,” stated the front page of the Greater Boston Food Bank’s website.

The increase seemed to happen quickly. Westford Food Pantry Board president Tim Baker said the total number of food bags distributed in April, May and June was 862 — a 70 percent increase over January, February and March of this year.

In March when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (no relation to Tim) issued a state of emergency over COVID — 19 and required restaurants and other small businesses to shut their doors, jobs disappeared overnight as restaurants and retail stores obeyed orders.

At 17.4 percent, the Massachusetts unemployment rate was the highest in the country this spring and summer, according to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. However, Westford’s unemployment rate is only 2.4 percent as compared to the state’s current 16.3 percent.

Beginning in April, food insecurity — the newest euphemism for hunger — began to grow.

According to the Food Bank’s monthly statistics, 356 seniors sought help from April to June, as compared to 241 seniors between January and March.  Visits to the food pantry increased by 54 percent, Tim Baker said.

“We’re feeding more people and seeing more need,” he added.

However, the alleged vegetable thief did not steal the produce because he was hungry, said town Social Worker, Alison Christopher who spoke with those who know him. “It was more of a cultural issue,” she said.

Nonetheless, Tim Baker said the Westford pantry gets between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of food per week form the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Inc. The amount includes canned goods and perishables such as chicken, fish, or eggs. The system pays it forward. The Westford pantry gave away more than 24K pounds of food from April to June.

Tim Baker spends between 12 and 15 hours a week volunteering for the food bank. Prior to the pandemic he had about 40 volunteers helping. Now he works with a skeletal crew of five to 10 volunteers so as not to potentially expose more people than necessary to COVID-19.

The pantry is open to residents and non-residents, but Tim Baker said 80 percent of those who use it live in Westford.

“The need is there. The need is growing,” said Tim Baker. “We have to work together to continue to support our neighbors.”