Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) is the largest anti-poverty organization in New England. They provide many different services to the community, including housing and youth services, fuel assistance, and workforce development. The ABCD Allston Brighton location focuses heavily on combating food insecurity, as the residents there are often in need.
A few years ago, some low-income residents of Boston were permanently living in temporary motels in Brighton. Family members would live together in one room with one refrigerator and one microwave. Without adequate food storage space and limited methods for cooking food, residents of the motels relied on nearby fast food chains for sustenance. That is until ABCD deployed the Mobile Food Pantry (MFP), the only one in the city. The MFP was developed to make fresh food available to those living in the motels, families who had been displaced and were now homeless. The motels eventually closed and the residents were again displaced, and ABCD looked for ways to continue using a system already in place to help other communities dealing with food insecurity.
“The need in this community has been great,” says Yuliya Lantsman, the Neighborhood Client Services Coordinator at ABCD Allston Brighton. “The area immediately surrounding us has been a food desert for a long time. And, actually, it’s about to be again, because the grocery store that had stopped that just recently closed… it only opened a year ago. [Brighton] was a food desert before, and it is again, and it hasn’t even been a year.”
The ABCD MFP now serves three neighborhoods: Brighton, Mattapan and Allston. The Brighton location serves about 60 families with food from the mobile pantry once every 30 days, but their permanent pantry is open five days a week. Most of the food is donated from the Greater Boston Food Bank, and includes canned fruits, vegetables, mayonnaise, peanut butter, meat and fish. They also get weekly deliveries of unsalable foods (damaged or day-old) from grocery stores and farmers markets, donated by Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Food 4 Free, two food-rescue organizations in Boston. These foods sit out on a communal table in the Allston Brighton office, and anyone who walks through the doors looking for food is welcome to take from the table, regardless of the 30-day rule.
ABCD Mattapan concentrates primarily on housing; they are a scattered site shelter, and the first step to helping displaced families, like those at the motels in Brighton, find permanent residences. At first, the Mattapan site didn’t have any food to offer incoming families and new residents but with the MFP they can now provide fresh food to incoming families. “I’m just really appreciative that we have food to give to the families when they first arrive to the shelter, because, honestly, they arrive with nothing. Two bags per person, and no food, and for us to be able to have a startup kit at least for them, a bag of cans and fresh produce for them to at least have that first meal, a warm meal, because some of them haven’t had a warm meal sometimes in years,” says Charyn Perdomo, Scattered Site Program Manager at ABCD Mattapan.
ABCD Mattapan currently houses 35 families, and almost 80% rely on the MFP every month to feed their families. Bianny Suncar, Director of the Mattapan Family Service Center, says, “We’re trying to be more intentional. Trying to see what we have been serving, and what can we change so that it would be healthier, and so that what we are serving is something that the families would actually like to eat.”
“We found that nutrition was a need especially for kids,” says Perdomo. “They’re not being fed the right food. When they were in the motels, they’d be eating frozen food, so we just try to bring them in and see how they can get healthier because people want to get healthier. We’ll size a portion of rice, vegetables, see what kinds of food they can make that are healthier choices for the kids and for the family […] And that’s just something that we want to teach families, because a lot of the families that we get are obese, and so we teach them smarter ways and healthier ways to cook. And they appreciate it. They’re even surprised like ‘wow, I was eating so much food and you only need this type of portion?’ And they appreciate it, and they learn a lot.”
Katty Bizarro has been a resident of the Mattapan scattered sites for two and a half years. She was born in Puerto Rico but has lived in the United States for 38 years. “The first year [in Mattapan], all they’re seeing is me crying and crying, and I’m like, they’re probably fed up, but they’re really good. They’re here to support you, you know. I think they’re doing a good job, it’s good. I think the food pantry they’re doing is really helping us a lot.”
The Allston MFP site opened last year and serves about 35 families from the Allston Brighton Community Development Center’s All Bright Community Center. The Center services the Allston community at large, so the MFP is able to provide food to a neighboring community and to other Brighton residents who might not be able to make it across town. Amelia Youngstrom, Operations Manager at ABCD Allston Brighton, says “we’ve definitely seen, since our first year in the program, our waitlist full, so there’s demand and there’s need there, and it really shows us that what we’re doing, making ourselves more accessible in Allston, is important, and we will continue to think of ways that we can increase that.”
“What our data across ABCD has shown is that [the food pantry] is not every month for most clients, and whether that’s just how accessible the food pantries are or how folks plan their month, it’s hard to say,” says Youngstrom.
Bizarro is one of the ABCD clients that can’t always make it through the month on her own. She goes food shopping when she gets her paycheck, and she visits food pantries when she doesn’t have enough food to get her family through the whole month. She says the MFP is the best of the four food pantries she goes to in and around her neighborhood. “I move around, I get around because I need the help, and, you know what I’m saying, they’re providing it, so I just know a lot of places that I could go and not let my kids go through hunger.”
ABCD has done a lot over the past couple of years to help combat widespread food insecurity, and now they’re focusing on how else they can help the Allston Brighton community at large.
“We started a farmers market here two years ago as a way to kind of meet that food desert need, and then bfresh opened, and we thought this farmers market could take a community-building approach. But now that bfresh is closed again, we’re going to see more of a need again to make sure families are getting enough produce. It’s only open in the summertime, unfortunately, but that’s one way that ABCD and all these community agencies are coming together to address the needs of a community,” says Lantsman.
ABCD’s work impacts Boston residents everyday. “They’ve been in hotels, motels, just cooking with a microwave, so to be able to give them that and welcome them, like, this is now your unit, your space, it’s really something different,” says Perdomo. “It makes a change, and you see the difference in their faces, and you see them crying, and they give you hugs, and let you know how much they appreciate the space, and it feels good. It feels good to come to work and see that, especially for the kids.”
To donate food, goods or you time to ABCD, visit http://www.bostonabcd.org/abcd-donation.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist and creator of The Clean Food Club. She previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. She is committed to supporting local and sustainable food businesses by telling their stories with photo and video. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.