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Loaves & Fishes food pantry delivery truck a step closer to reality

Volunteers Judy McDermott of Groton, left, and Wanda Burns of Lancaster, rear, fill bags for pickup at Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Ayer.  SUN/Julia Malakie
Volunteers Judy McDermott of Groton, left, and Wanda Burns of Lancaster, rear, fill bags for pickup at Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Ayer. SUN/Julia Malakie
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DEVENS — State Sen. Jamie Eldridge secured a $50,000 appropriation for the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry as part of the fiscal year 2022 Senate Budget proposal.

The $50,000 will help Loaves & Fishes purchase a box truck used to pick up groceries at the Greater Boston Food Bank. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the pantry utilized a truck and driver from a local company.

“Because of the pandemic and growing food insecurity there’s a real recognition of a greater need for Loaves & Fishes to have its own vehicle,” Eldridge said.

As the start of the pandemic, Loaves & Fishes relied upon private businesses to make their runs to the food bank. In some cases they were supplied a truck and a driver, but other times it was a truck or a driver. The pantry realized they needed a longer-term solution with some more consistency.

Patricia Smith, executive director for Loaves & Fishes, said they started by pursuing the grant route. They were awarded a $40,000 grant from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which got them halfway to their goal.

That’s when she enlisted the help of Eldridge, who had helped the pantry before.

“Between his efforts and the Greater Boston Food Bank grant, we now have the truck fully paid for. Which is incredible to us,” Smith said. “Because of all the donations that come in, we can put that towards our main mission of food.”

Eldridge is confident the appropriation will pass in the final budget and highlighted that Gov. Charlie Baker has not vetoed appropriations in recent years. He is also confident that if it were to be vetoed, it would be overridden by the legislature because of the direct impact it will have on the community.

Smith expects the truck will be in use by August. She added Loaves & Fishes has already been connecting with other area pantries about supporting them with their transportation needs.

“We’re hopeful that we can have a collaborative effort with other area pantries,” Smith said. “We already have one pantry that is interested and we’re hopeful that others will step forward and we can fill a void for them as well.”

Every two weeks, Loaves & Fishes brings in about 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of groceries from the Greater Boston Food Bank. It comes on the truck in the form of 8 to 10 pallets.

During a normal pantry session, which lasts for about three hours, Smith said they typically help 40 to 50 families, with each family being about 4 people. They receive about $200 to $250 worth of groceries.

When the pandemic first hit, they saw record levels of people who needed help. Right after Baker’s state of emergency went into effect, they were serving from 90 to 110 families.

Those numbers returned to pre-pandemic levels in the summertime, where they have mostly stayed other than during the holidays. Smith attributes that to additional unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits, stimulus checks, and the ability for children to get meals at school. However, she is worried that the need will soon increase as those benefits go away.

“For many folks we’ve actually heard them say ‘we’re better off now than we were before’,” Smith said. “I am pretty comfortable in telling you this is not going to last, eventually the bottom will fall out, and folks will be back at our door.”

In addition to trips to the Greater Boston Food Bank, Smith said the truck will hopefully be in use for local organizations and businesses who run food drives for the pantry. She also said Loaves & Fishes is looking at a way to have the truck replace the regular visits from Council on Aging buses that bring food to community members.

As for broader food insecurity trends across the Nashoba Valley, Eldridge said working class families took an especially hard hit. He said many families may have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage, and accrued a lot of debt to scrape by.

Eldridge said he will be doing more to make his constituents aware of the resources available to them and pieces of legislation that can improve their lives.

“I think the message for far too long in America is that ‘if you’re poor it’s your own fault’ and not various systemic issues or various education (issues),” Eldridge said. “I’m certainly someone that if you continue to look at all of the tax breaks that go to large corporations and the size of our military budget versus funding for the social safety net (programs) there’s a reason why there’s such inequality.”