Despite Low Poverty Statistics, Area Food Insecurity on the Rise
January is National Poverty Awareness Month. Although compared to the national average of U.S. residents living in poverty in 2022, (11.5% according to the U.S. Census), just around one in 20 in local towns such as Bellingham (5.1%) and Franklin (4.6%) live in poverty.
One might assume that these low-income residents are the ones accessing local food pantries, but according to Tina Powderly, Executive Director of the Franklin Food Pantry, food insecurity, which is on the rise, isn’t solely tied to income.
Although the sheer number of registered households accessing the Franklin Food Pantry has risen (for example,523 registered Franklin families in FY22 to 534 so far this year, and 29 registered Bellingham families in FY22 compared to 45 so far this year) a good indicator food insecurity is rising is that folks are visiting the food pantry more often, with a 27% increase in visits from November 2022 to November 2023.
This year’s MetroWest Health Foundation’s 2023 Metrowest Community Health Assessment, in fact, lists “Food Insecurity” and “Housing Insecurity and Homelessness” among the top five reported community concerns for the first time in the past decade.
“Shelter is, on the average, a household’s biggest expense, and that’s true wherever you fall on the income bracket. Housing inflation is a real struggle folks face, as well as a rising cost of groceries, say Powderly.” Families, she says, must decide between paying for housing and paying for groceries.
“Food insecurity is just not an issue simply faced by folks that have economic insecurity,” says Powderly. “It’s really one social determinant of health. There’s a whole host of non-medical factors, including housing, job security, education, and income.” Although combatting food insecurity is the pantry’s mission, it also can connect its users to resources aimed at improving other factors.
In fact, the Metrowest survey listed Mental Health as this year’stop community concern, a problem exacerbated by instability.
“An individual who’s food insecure is much more likely to experience mental health stressors,” she points out, and these folks face larger barriers to expensive mental health services. “It’s not necessarily that you’re hungry at any hour of the day. It’s a lack of consistent access to enough food for the people in your house to live a healthy life. That’s how the USDA defines food insecurity. One of the things we try to do in this space is reduce the stigma and anxiety that comes with experiencing food insecurity with an atmosphere that feels very warm, like a grocery store.”
The Franklin Food Pantry can connect patrons to other resources, she says, but “part of the job is getting them in the door, so they feel safe. It takes time to convince them to try the resources that help them. It could be a social worker at Franklin Public School for a child, the weekend backpack program, or the SHINE counselor at the Senior Center. We can be a point of reference, and all of these issues are so interconnected. Certainly, economic insecurity is a factor in food insecurity, but we see the whole breadth of humanity here … Chances are high if you volunteer here for any period of time, you’ll come across someone you know.”
For information on the Franklin Food Pantry, visit www.franklinfoodpantry.org.
For more information on the Metrowest Health Foundation and its recent 2023 Metrowest Community Health Assessment, visit https://mwhealth.org.