NORTH ADAMS — After the onset of the pandemic sparked a surge in unemployment last spring, food insecurity naturally followed.
That ebbed in the summer months as federal assistance reached people in need. But stimulus checks have been spent, and with a recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the state, hunger has once more begun to climb.
If coronavirus cases remain high, the renewal or expansion of safety restrictions could further hamper businesses, leading to job losses. And if pantries see a drop in volunteers, they say, it will be difficult for them to keep meeting the growing need.
Berkshire Food Project in North Adams is serving twice as many meals as it did before the pandemic with a third of its typical number of volunteers, said Executive Director Kim McMann.
“We just continued to be in uncharted territory,” she said.
Numbers increaseBerkshire Food Project served 62,345 meals through October this year, up 74.3 percent from the 35,761 meals it served by the same time last year.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has also served 13.8 percent more people through September this year than last year.
Moreover, 18 percent of the 113,870 people the Food Bank served in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties during September were seeking food assistance for the first time.
Up to one in six people — and one in four children — in Western Massachusetts may face food insecurity by the end of the year, according to estimates from Feeding America, a national network of food banks.
In Berkshire County, 19,200 people, including 5,300 children, may not know where they will get their next meal — a 52 percent jump from pre-pandemic levels.
Partially to blame is increased unemployment, which has impeded people’s ability to pay for food, said Christina Maxwell, the Food Bank’s director of programs.
Massachusetts’ unemployment rate, which stood at 3 percent in March, shot up to 17.8 percent in June before declining to 9.5 percent in September, according to state numbers.
Food providers have also been hampered by a loss of volunteers as many who are older have chosen to stay home and safety restrictions have decreased gathering sizes.
Government responsesMaxwell attributes a slight decrease over the summer to federal aid in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
An extra $600 a week of unemployment assistance “kept a lot of people above water,” Maxwell said.
The Food Bank went from serving 91,569 people in March to 113,280 in April when the pandemic hit, but it saw a drop from 113,920 people in May to 107,119 in June. Yet that number increased to 112,696 in July and peaked at 114,587 in August.
Berkshire Food Project saw a similar trend, experiencing a decrease from 8,163 meals served in June to 6,247 in July, but its number increased once more to 7,606 in August before falling to 5,934 in September.
That also mirrors the experience of Community Food Pantry in Pittsfield, run by South Congregational Church.
“The need went down a little bit with the stimulus package,” said Mary Wheat, a pantry leader. “Now it’s going back up. It’s been very busy the last couple weeks, probably the last month.”
Due to the recent rise in coronavirus cases, the pantry will continue to distribute outdoors and deliver in the winter to minimize safety risks, Wheat said.
While the prospects for a new federal stimulus package remain unclear, the state budget passed by the Massachusetts House contains increased funding for food programs.
Lawmakers proposed to double funding for the healthy incentives program, which would grow to $13 million, and to put $30 million to the Massachusetts emergency food assistance program, an increase of nearly $10 million.
They also adopted an amendment seeking to allow individuals to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while applying for MassHealth.
Maxwell said that since individuals eligible for MassHealth often qualify for SNAP, merging the application processes could help close what is known as a “SNAP gap.”
Yet the Food Bank — which gets around 25 percent of its food from the state government, another 25 percent from the federal government, and the rest from donations or grants — is bracing for a decrease in the amount of food it receives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maxwell said.
On the federal level, many hope President-elect Joe Biden to reverse efforts by President Donald Trump to roll back food assistance.
A federal judge in October blocked a Trump administration attempt to limit SNAP eligibility that would have ended benefits for an estimated 700,000 people.
For now, though, there’s still some hope for a new stimulus package.
“All of that has gone away,” Maxwell said. “It would be really helpful if they got anything passed.”