In the United States, we conceive of hunger and food insecurity as associated with certain types of places and certain types of people: large metropolitan areas and the homeless. In reality, however, it is an epidemic that affects large and varied groups of people across the country, particularly the poor. The defining characteristic of food insecurity, according to the USDA, is that food intake decreases severely due to lack of funds to purchase food with nutritional value. According to Feeding America, the 2009-2011 estimate of households facing food insecurity in the United States was 14.7%. And while the USDA reports that Massachusetts’ food insecurity in 2011 was below the national average, hunger and food insecurity is a problem that many here face daily.
Somerville Homeless Coalition’s (SHC) responded to this in 1969 by establishing Project Soup. Project Soup was New England’s first free supper program. The program has become an important part of combating hunger and food insecurity in the Somerville area. The Project works with the homeless, struggling families, and immigrants, ensuring that they are able to feed themselves and their children. SHC’s annual report states that in 2011, 1,447 people benefitted from Project Soup’s food resources and the food pantry received over 3,000 visits. With locations in East Somerville and Davis Square, as well as a home delivery program and benefit outreach, SHC has created a safe place for their clients to find food that is offered by people who care: volunteers, church members, etc.
Project Soup operates as an emergency food pantry out of Saint Benedict’s church in East Somerville. It offers food to Somerville residents who are having trouble finding their next meal. At first, clients were only able to take one bag of emergency food, and only dried food and canned goods were offered. Now, with the addition of a walk-in freezer, Project Soup’s manager Nina Siciliano said, “They’re now walking out of here with two to four bags. So it’s become more than just the emergency food bag that really doesn’t last them that long. We’re able to hold more food and give them fresher produce.” The efforts and monetary donations of many community groups, including groups from Tufts, such as the Community Based Research class at Tufts’ Community Health department, made this walk in possible.
This transition from giving out dried food and canned goods to providing hungry residents with meat, eggs, and cheese has widened the program’s range of options. While further expansion is not necessarily the first thing on their minds for the future, Siciliano hopes to add even more options to create a more kid-friendly food selection.
Volunteering for Project Soup is one way to lend a helping hand in ending hunger and food insecurity in our area. While they are not looking for volunteers to help sort food or cook and serve the food at their Monday night meals, Siciliano said that they “are always encouraging people to do a can drive or a toiletry drive, especially around the holidays.” She says that the best way to contribute to Project Soup is to bring in donations to the food pantry. They receive about 70% of their food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. The other 30% comes from student groups, church groups, and others who are in the giving spirit. The donations bring awareness to the food pantry’s mission; as Siciliano said, “People should not be going hungry in this city because this is where we live, where we work. Hunger is a huge issue.”
Since several of their clients are non-native English speakers, Project Soup continues to make efforts to include many different cultures into their program. Through fliers, pamphlets, and posters written in different languages, Project Soup works to include all people, regardless of language barriers. Each patron’s level of comfort adds to his or her personal experience at the food pantry. In order to make the patrons more comfortable, Siciliano said that she would love to have volunteers to translate fliers or run events in their native tongue that explain what different vegetables are, how to cook them, and their nutritional value. “Translating is definitely a need … in our application, knowing foods, the rules and regulations here. That’s a big variety of work that can be done,” she said.
Project Soup’s main goal is to reduce the hunger and food insecurity in the Somerville Area, but they don’t stop there. The well-being of the families and people they encounter are crucial to the program’s operation, and they remain connected with other support programs for low-income or marginalized people. Near her desk, Siciliano has a bulletin board filled with fliers that offer teeth cleanings for people with MassHealth and free tax services through LIFT. Siciliano says that her main goal is to make sure that these people don’t leave the food pantry feeling alone, and that she wants to make sure that her clients know that there are others out there that want to help them. The clients might come in feeling ashamed, but the hope is that they walk out feeling less self-conscious.
The belief that hunger and food insecurity only happens in large metropolitan areas and only to homeless people has led to a stigma surrounding the use of food pantries. If hunger is to be dealt with on a local level, this misconception must be corrected. “I think a lot of people are afraid to come to pantries because they think it can jeopardize their status in this country if they’re getting any assistance,” Siciliano said. “It is make it or break it for some people: do I buy food or pay my rent? Do I buy food for my children or do I put oil in my tank and keep them warm?” It’s not just the homeless that are hungry: young adults, families, and the elderly are all facing this problem. Hunger is everywhere, and Project Soup is doing their part to end it.