Inside the Fight Against Food Insecurity in Worcester County

By Stephanie Jarvis Campbell, Correspondent

This article appeared in Worcester Magazine on Friday, September 16, 2022.

As CEO of the Worcester County Food Bank, Jean McMurray has heard story upon story from people who need assistance with buying groceries, like one woman who said she needed to take a second job just to feed her family. In a time of post-quarantine and aftereffects from the pandemic, as well as inflation, those stories, unfortunately, are not uncommon.  

“Poverty and food insecurity have become more chronic,” McMurray said. “Every story is unique. Every story just affirms why Worcester County Food Bank does what we do, why our agencies do what they do. … We never get to meet all the people, but it’s probably the best feel-good story of people helping others.” 

One in 12 people in Worcester County doesn’t have enough healthy food to eat, according to WCFB, and during the last fiscal year, from July 1, 2021, to June 30, the nonprofit organization distributed 7.2 million pounds of food, valued at $11 million, in collaboration with its partner agencies, McMurray said.  

“To put it in perspective, that’s enough for about 116,000 meals a week,” she noted.  

Although McMurray stressed that it is essential to create more programs to help end hunger so that food pantries are a last resort, “while people need help, that’s why we’re going to be here,” she said. 

The Shrewsbury-based WCFB partners with 119 agencies in Worcester County, from larger organizations to smaller faith-based groups, according to McMurray. “We look at our partner agencies as equal parts of the whole. They’re rooted in their communities; they know their neighbors,” she said. “There are 60 communities in Worcester County. We wouldn’t be able to distribute all this food without them.” 

WCFB runs a highly efficient, streamlined operation — food is received from a number of sources, including the Massachusetts Emergency Assistance Food Program and also the federal government, retailers such as grocery stores, food drives and farms. Once the food enters the facility, it is inspected for signs of damage, assigned a number and logged into the organization’s tracking system. Anything perishable is stored in the warehouse refrigerator and freezer. Volunteers then sort the non-perishables into various categories — beverages, coffee/tea, cereal, snacks, canned goods, baking/dry goods and baby products, making sure to check for expiration dates. Once a box is sorted, it gets a label with the volunteer’s initials and the date, and a random quality control check ensures that items are suitable for distribution.  

Holden resident Matt Labovites, a former WCFB board member, is one of those volunteers who helps with quality control, and he also spends time sorting food and training other people. Retired from his public service job of 37 years, he has been a longtime supporter of the food bank. “This is so satisfying. I get a lot of gratification out of it,” he said. “I’m so proud to be associated in some small way. I feel like we’re the lucky ones to come here.”  

On any given day, the warehouse is a busy place, with receiving, sorting and loading all happening continuously. Partner agencies make an appointment — a system that was established during COVID to control the number of people in the facility — and then come to select the items for their own distribution, based on monthly tracking of the number of individuals and families they’ve helped. Some agencies come only once a month; others pick up food every couple of weeks, McMurray said. Then, once the agencies load their vehicles with the food and transport it back to their pantries, they distribute to people in their towns according to their own pick-up regulations and schedules.  

“I think people think food pantries distribute expired food, but that’s not the case,” McMurray said.  

In fact, at the food bank — and many of the local food pantries — it's far from it. Although the WCFB warehouse is stocked with the shelf-stable staples, and about half of the floor area contains non-perishables from the state program, the freezer has items like beef, fish and fish sticks, ice cream and frozen vegetables. Using some of the state funds the WCFB receives, culturally diverse products are often purchased, and donations also come from local farms.  

“More and more, people want that fresh, locally grown food,” McMurray said. “We know that fresh food is more expensive. We’re very glad to get those donations.” 

Community Harvest Project, which grows exclusively to contribute to the hunger relief system, is one such farm that provides food to WCFB. In fact, during its first year of farming in Grafton 20 years ago, WCFB was the Community Harvest Project’s first partner. Now, with two locations — a 15-acre site in Grafton, where more than 40 varieties of vegetables and blueberries are grown, and an orchard in Harvard — the organization planted and harvested nearly 290,000 pounds of food in 2021 that benefited 31,328 individuals, according to its annual report. In addition to WCFB, Community Harvest Project in 2021 also partnered with more than 20 organizations, including Jeremiah's Inn, the Hector Reyes House, the WooFridge, You Inc. and Family Health Center of Worcester. 

“We keep growing for emergency need because there’s a need, but it’s not solving the problem,” said Tori Buerschaper, executive director of the Community Harvest Project. “It’s making sure they have enough to eat today.” 

The organization originally planted just tomato crops when it first started, with a goal of ensuring fresh produce in the hunger relief network, according to Buerschaper, and its mission is to educate and engage. A team of 14,000-plus volunteers help plant, harvest, sort, pack and wash the fruits and vegetables to prepare for pick-up by the partner organizations, all while adapting to changing conditions, such as the rainy summer last year and the drought this past season. 

“Now more than ever, it is important our produce gets out the door. We saw that last year, where there were still supply chain issues, and this year with inflation. People are not hungry because there isn’t enough food. The money they do have doesn’t go far enough,” Buerschaper said, adding that there needs to be “big, systematic changes” and a look at the issues that prevent people from having enough personal funding.  

Joel Wallen, associate executive director of Pernet Family Health Service in Worcester, agreed, saying, “I think food is a big justice issue. People should always have access to not just food, but also healthy food. With the rising inflation costs, a lot of the families we see, when they look at their budget, food is one of the few things that isn’t a fixed expense. If you can barely make ends meet, you can’t corner-cut on rent, but you can corner-cut on food. With our food pantry, we want to have people not cut corners on food. We really want people to have choices, and to have dignity in that.” 

It was a sentiment expressed by many involved in the hunger relief system. Although many food pantries don’t have resources or volunteers to expand beyond distributing bags of pre-selected items, numerous others have shifted to an approach that is not one-size-fits-all. At the Oxford Ecumenical Food Shelf, for instance, “the clients get a grocery cart and they go through like they were shopping in a store. Our clients are able to pick what they want from the shelves, what their family will eat, which is a really cool model,” said Chairperson Christine St. Martin. 

At Auburn Youth and Family Services, the experience is very similar. “We really listen to what people want. If they don’t want the beans, they shouldn’t take the beans,” Executive Director Sally D’Arcangelo said.  

This setup allows pantries to include a diverse selection of items, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, gluten-free options, meat and fish, and even personal care products and pet food. 

And with clients taking what they need, instead of what they’re given, it contributes to less food waste. “If you’re hungry and going without, you don’t want to throw food away,” St. Martin pointed out. 

St. Martin said that at the pantry in Oxford, they distribute not only food, but also simple recipes that need just a few ingredients so that people are able to use the items they receive. “A lot of times, people have never cooked eggplant or bok choy,” she said.  

Although for many of the food pantries, their largest partner is WCFB, they do rely on other food sources, as well. An Eagle Scout is making raised bed blueberry bush gardens for Auburn Youth and Family Services, and some residents who have chickens donate eggs for the pantry. 

In addition, they were able to purchase additional items using grant monies they received during COVID, D’Arcangelo said. The Oxford Food Shelf participated in a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and for the past eight years, it has grown its own produce at the Share Garden, located at the First Congregational Church. Pernet, which was founded by Little Sisters of the Assumption 68 years ago, also partners with Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a nonprofit organization that distributes food that would otherwise go to waste.  

By offering a client-choice model, as well as a welcoming, judgment-free atmosphere, it is the hope that this makes it somewhat easier for those who need to utilize food pantry services, according to those involved.  

“I think people, if they’ve never gone to a food pantry before, they don’t know what to expect,” 

McMurray said. “They don’t know if they’re going to be asked a lot of questions. You don’t have to show an ID; you don’t have to show a pay stub. We believe that if you’re going to a food pantry, you’re in need. I don’t think if you’re going to a food pantry, you’re doing it for fun.” 

She added, “We have always said, everyone is welcome. But we know it can be hard. It may be pride. But that’s why we’re here. If you need assistance, we want you to receive it.” 

WCFB will ask for some general information, such as the number of people in the family, their ZIP code and their largest source of income (but not the actual amount) to help with their advocacy efforts. While a large part of the WCFB’s goal is involved with the day-to-day food distribution, the organization is also heavily involved with advocating to end hunger. Officials meet with legislators, engage with communities and push for programs aimed at reducing hunger.  

“Hunger is a solvable problem,” Labovites said. “With money and effort and advocacy, you can move the needle on hunger. The food bank and all of its partner agencies make a difference every single day.” 

When the pandemic first happened, the number of those utilizing a food pantry increased by about 25%, McMurray said. But then, with programs such as the free school breakfasts and lunches, child tax credits and supplemental EBT pandemic funds for eligible children, “we saw the numbers going back down. We saw how to end hunger. We need government programs,” she said. Now, however, she added, “there are more people getting help than before the pandemic. … You can’t downsize a mortgage.” 

In Worcester, Pernet distributed just under 225,000 pounds of food — equal to 30,000 meals served — from July 1, 2021, to June 30 of this year. According to Wallen, the pantry has seen an increase of between 25 and 30% in usage over the past several years, and then more so with COVID.

“What we’ve seen is the numbers haven’t gone down,” he said, adding that the pantry moves 600 pounds of food over two days a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when it is open for pick-up.  

D'Arcangelo agreed, noting that in July, the Auburn pantry serviced 39 new families, which was equal to 97 people. “I don’t feel like COVID is over. We’re still dealing with the aftereffects,” she said. “You’re getting marginalized families, but you’re also getting families that they’re working, but they’re falling through the cracks. … Hard times have fallen on everyone. It is difficult.” 

McMurray pointed out that 20 to 25% of people who go to a food pantry have jobs. “You can have a job, but you may not be able to afford healthy food,” she said. “If you’re on a fixed income, you may have worked all your life, but you may be facing difficult choices.” 

Many of the food pantries also try to provide other services, such as information on how to apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or WIC (Women, Infants and Children) or where to find a pantry in their town. Auburn Youth and Family Services has a clothing closet with gently-used items for children and adults, a school supply program, and information and referral services, and the Oxford pantry distributes backpacks, socks, Christmas gifts and winter wear throughout the months.  

“We feel like we should be a good source of information for people,” McMurray said. “It goes hand in hand — good information, good food. Some people just don’t know where to start. Like we saw with the pandemic, if you’ve never needed help before, where do you get help? Where do you start?” 

“So many families are struggling to put food on the table,” D’Arcangelo said. “Many of the families are worried about having enough food for the end of the week … even if they get food stamps. We believe everyone should have access to healthier versions of food, and often those are the most expensive things.” 

Everything, D’Arcangelo said, revolves around food — if someone is struggling to eat, it often affects performance at school or work. In addition, she said, “food nutrition isn’t just about food. Not only do they need help with food, they might need help with a bill. They might need help with a job or interviewing skills.” 

“It’s hard enough to ask for help. We want to make it as easy as possible,” D’Arcangelo said. “We’re here to support families. I think you have to remove the barriers that make it embarrassing for people. It’s not fair. … It’s so hard for people if they have to go somewhere and wait in line. It’s so impersonal. That’s a deterrent.” 

She added, “Why shouldn’t everyone be able to eat healthy? We have to make it accessible. I think that’s what many of the food pantries are trying to do.” 

To find a food pantry in Worcester County, visit the WCFB Agency Locater resource page at