Nov. 23, 2011
BOSTON — At 5:45 a.m. on Nov. 22, while the sun was still idling in twilight, employees were starting their shifts inside the Greater Boston Food Bank in Dorchester. The smell of ripe produce hung in the air as men transported frozen turkeys, potatoes and onions on electric-powered pallet jacks to a 48-foot tractor-trailer at the loading dock.
Bob Hurley, the director of warehousing and logistics, explained that a lot of planning goes in the night before.
“As we pick our orders, we’ll pick them the night before, and stage them because we got some product that needs to be in the freezer and some in coolers,” he said. “So everything is staged and ready to go in its normal warehousing location, and then we’ll load the truck in the order with which we want to take it off because the site is a little constricted.”
The site Hurley is talking about is in Charlestown. The Greater Boston Food Bank has partnered up with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services to have a mobile food pantry at Bunker Hill Community College. On this morning, they were giving out Thanksgiving food staples to veterans and veterans’ families just in time for the holiday.
Clients arrive early looking for food
At 6:30 a.m., the fully packed truck headed out to Charlestown. Upon arrival, thousands of pounds of food were unloaded and brought to their designated spots outside the college’s health and wellness center.
By 8:00 a.m., employees and volunteers had set up a row of tables lined with various produce, with bags of turkey at the end. Though the staffers were an hour ahead of schedule, early birds were already at the scene.
One of those early birds was Vietnam veteran Eileen Locke of Charlestown. It was her first time at a mobile food pantry, she said, and every little bit helped.
“We get our Social Security check. It’s the same amount every month. We’re satisfied. Then we go to the supermarket, and some things have actually doubled in price. So our check is not going as far as it used to,” she said. “Something like the food bank is a blessing. But it’s sad we had to come to this. This was a prosperous country.”
Unemployment's connection to hunger
Jobs, or the lack of them, are at the core of the growing demand for food and assistance in the veteran community. The unemployment rate for post–9/11 veterans in Massachusetts is 12 percent, significantly higher than the statewide jobless rate of 7.3 percent. Women veterans have the highest unemployment rate at 15 percent.
Secretary of Veterans’ Services Coleman Nee said the poor economy was just one of the reasons veterans were struggling.
“We know many of the young women and men coming back today, particularly guards and reservists, they have either left jobs or did not work long enough or have not been in the career path for a while because they have been deployed multiple times,” he said. “And it can be a challenge when they come back — not only to reintegrate into society and deal with some of the wounds they may have incurred overseas, but also [to] reintegrate back into the workplace.”
This is the first mobile food pantry targeted at veterans, and the Greater Boston Food Bank plans on having more. They’ve seen a 23 percent increase in demand in the past 5 years.
Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the Food Bank, said people were often surprised to find that veterans were part of that increased demand.
“The fact that [veterans] are homeless, or that they don’t have enough to eat — they’re a really good example of how our society is sort of imbalanced in terms of ‘What are we doing for those that are in need?’” D’Amato said.
Low on green and greens
By 9:30 a.m., the line of people at Bunker Hill Community College had grown. A veteran named Jeff who came in from Cambridge was trying to decide whether he needed a head of cabbage.
“The only reason I’m here is because I’m kind of broke, and I’ve run into a financial crisis, along with some medical issues and things, and conditions and situations have placed me here,” he said.
He appreciated the assistance, he said, but…
“In the bigger picture, it’s only a grain of sand. It’s the bigger picture we’re looking at. But I guess for one day, it’s OK,” he said.