50 years of walking for hunger

'Food insecurity' on the rise in Mass. as annual walk approaches

Last year’s Walk for Hunger. (Photo courtesy of Project Bread)

This Sunday marks the 50th annual Walk for Hunger, the massive fundraising event put on by Boston-based Project Bread to support food pantries and other programs. The event draws thousands of people, who gather pledges and then set out on the 20-mile course that steps off from Boston Common and makes its way to Newton and back. When launched in 1969 it was the first such fundraising walk in the country. In October, Erin McAleer took the reins as the new president of Project Bread. The 38-year-old North Shore resident is a social worker with a background in public policy. She held several senior positions in the Patrick administration, including legislative director of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and chief of staff at the Department of Transitional Assistance. CommonWealth sat down with her earlier this week at the organization’s East Boston offices, where staff members were busy preparing for Sunday’s walk. McAleer said the challenge of addressing food insecurity in Massachusetts has become greater in recent years – a result of both federal policy changes and the state’s high cost of living. At the same time, Project Bread must now vie for dollars – and participants – with a host of other worthy causes that have latched onto the fundraising walk model that the group pioneered. McAleer has her hands full overseeing millions of dollars that the group funnels to food pantries and other programs and keeping a close eye on state and federal policy related to food and hunger issues. When we met she was also closely tracking the weekend weather forecast. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

COMMONWEALTH:  Project Bread’s slogan is a play on words: “Make Hunger History.” How are we doing with that?

ERIN MCALEER: We know at Project Bread that hunger is a solvable problem. We know what programs work. We know that we’ve got the mechanisms in place to get people to those programs. Congressman [Jim] McGovern, who will be getting an award from us on Sunday for all his work in this area, says it’s all about the political will. Looking historically at where we are, the first Walk for Hunger took place in the late 60s, when hunger and food insecurity were high, and in the 70s there was a really strong investment in the safety net and programs like SNAP and WIC and school lunches, and the rates were really low. We were very close to actually solving hunger. And then in the 80s we saw the politicization of a lot of these programs and the erosion of them. So we know that the issue of providing access to food is absolutely solvable.

CW: Your website says the food insecurity rate in Massachusetts now stands at 27 percent, higher than 10 years ago. How do you define food insecurity and why have things have gotten worse in just the last 10 years?

MCALEER: Food Insecurity is not knowing where your next meal is going to come from. This shouldn’t have gotten worse in the last 10 years. I mean, 10 years ago we were in a recession, so things should have improved. The reason that in Massachusetts the food insecurity rate has grown is, frankly, because of cost of living has increased exponentially and low wages have not kept pace. Prices of housing have gone up. Prices of transportation have gone up.

Project Bread president Erin McAleer.

CW: So it’s more that things like the cost of housing, which we know is off the charts here, are crowding out the ability to afford food? It’s not that food prices have spiked.

MCALEER: Exactly. It’s the cost of other things. It’s housing, childcare – we have the most expensive childcare in the country. Heat — we’ve got really old buildings.

CW: You mentioned that you’re giving Congressman Jim McGovern an award on Sunday. What is that?

MCALEER: He’s getting our “Hunger Hero Award.” We are so grateful for the support of all the walkers and our corporate sponsors and, but there is one person that stood out that we felt like we really needed to call attention and show gratitude to and that’s Congressman McGovern. He’s certainly our champion in Massachusetts, but he’s also the strongest champion for these programs in the entire country.

CW: When you say hunger is solvable if we have the will, what are key things that you think we need to get buy-in on?

MCALEER: The SNAP program, which formerly was called food stamps. It’s a supplemental nutrition assistance program. It is the most effective anti-hunger program that we have in the country, but is political fodder every single election, where there are questions raised about fraud, waste, and abuse. We actually know of all federal programs that it has one of the smallest rates of actual abuse because use of SNAP is monitored electronically through EBT cards, so we’re able to track everything. But even now, President Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed really, really significant cuts to this program, which are just going to propel more people into poverty. Instead of looking at it as a solution and looking at ways to improve it and making sure more folks have access to it or that it’s even more beneficial, we are having conversations about really significantly reducing SNAP and taking it away from folks that need it.

CW: Another issue I know you’ve spoken out on is something called the Healthy Incentives Program, which helps people with access to fresh produce at farmers’ markets and other locations.

Participants in the second Walk for Hunger, in 1970.

MCALEER: The Healthy Incentives Program is for SNAP recipients and it allows them to use their EBT card to purchase fruits and vegetables and it provides a financial incentive for them to do this – a dollar-for-dollar match. This program was first piloted in Hampden County, then went statewide and national because it was proven to be a very effective program. What we love about it is it busts the myth that low-income families don’t want to purchase fruits and vegetables. What it does illuminate is that low-income families struggle to afford fruits and vegetables, so when you make them more affordable and accessible by having them at farmers’ markets and having farmers markets have the EBT card machine folks will purchase them. The challenge with where the program is right now is that we received three years of funding from US Department of Agriculture, but because the program was so popular it took only months for that funding to run out. So now we are looking to the state to provide supplemental and ongoing financial support to continue this program. What a lot of people don’t understand is that these fruits and vegetables are more expensive [than other food]. When you’re on a tight budget and stretching your dollars, the most affordable food is the least nutritious. It’s processed food, it’s junk food, and if you’re feeding three kids, filling their bellies is your top priority. Trying to purchase healthy fruits and vegetables is what you want, but it’s cost-prohibitive.

CW: Another area where there’s a lot of activity on right now is the school breakfast program or, as it’s being referred to, “breakfast after the bell,” the idea being that you want to make breakfast available after all kids have arrived for the regular school start time. In today’s Globe there was a story saying that even though the Boston Public Schools talked about trying to triple the number of schools offering breakfast, they haven’t really made any progress to speak of. That must be a little distressing.

MCALEER: At Project Bread we are in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and we have outreach workers in all regions of the state specifically to provide technical support to schools to do breakfast after the bell. We have seen that the growth in the number of schools doing breakfast after the bell has declined. We started doing this work in 1995 and had such a strong push to get all schools signed up. I think the schools that are interested and want to do it are [already] doing it. What we’re doing as a next step is working in coalition with a lot of other organizations, such as the Greater Boston Food Bank, as an example, on legislation to mandate that schools that have over 60 percent of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch do breakfast after the bell and really incentivize them to do it. We know that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. It levels the playing field. We also know from our experience being in the schools what the resistance is to the program. There are worries about kids being distracted if they’re eating. A lot of teachers really worry about that. But after a school starts a program teachers actually say kids pay better attention now because they’re sitting there eating their breakfast and their stomach’s not growling.

CW: You’ve just recently started emailing out a policy newsletter by email. What drove that decision?

MCALEER: My background is I’m a social worker by training and I worked in policy for a really long time. We have such a large constituency because of the Walk for Hunger, and it’s not just the walkers, it’s the individuals that are fundraising for those walkers and donating to them. So part of my goal is to turn some of those walkers into activists. We have created a policy action team. We’ve got over 300 members of that now, and we send out action alerts when things are happening in Washington or on Beacon Hill and ask them to make calls. But we also have started a newsletter that goes out every two weeks that includes just a few clippings of things that are happening that we think folks should be aware of. We don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information, but want to just keep our constituency informed of the top level issues that are happening around hunger.

CW: How many people take part in the walk? I went back and saw stories citing anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 people.

MCALEER: That was in the heyday. Now it’s around 10 to 15,000.

CW: What explains the fall off in numbers?

MCALEER: We were the first walk in the country, the first peer-to-peer fundraising pledge walk in the country.

CW: For any cause?

MCALEER: For any cause. And we were the only one in town for a number of years. So that was a really big piece of it. Now there’s lots of different walks. Replication is very flattering. But that’s a challenge. I also think other things have changed. Sunday’s used to be a day that people had available to them and, even in my own network, everybody has soccer practice, they’ve got tee ball. Also, schools, as an example, used to be really engaged [in the Walk for Hunger]. We still have a lot of schools engaged, but now schools also do fundraising for themselves. They’re not fundraising necessarily for other causes. They’re doing 5K runs to support the needs of their own schools. So there are a lot of different factors for why the numbers have changed. We’re still the biggest walk in the state.

CW: What’s your target for what the walk raises?

MCALEER: This year we’re looking to raise a little under two-and-a-half-million [dollars].

CW: How much of your overall budget does that represent?

MCALEER: It’s about a third, a significant portion of our budget.

CW: And what are the sources of the other two-thirds?

MCALEER: We get state funding. We’ve got partnerships with the Department of Transitional Assistance around SNAP outreach and our food source hotline. We get funding from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, corporate foundation support, foundation support, and then individual donors. Project Bread has such a loyal and committed supportive base. During the holiday season we’ve got lots of people sending in $25, $50, and more obviously.

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