Panel cites infrastructure, stigma as challenges to addressing hunger in Andover

Nov. 24—Local experts are looking for solutions after recent SNAP enrollment numbers showed Andover residents taking part in federal food assistance had increased by 240% since March 2020.

On Monday, Nov. 14 experts gathered for a panel to explore Andover's challenges with food insecurity, and to highlight the problems it shares with the surrounding areas and some that are more unique to the town.

According to statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, the Massachusetts Department of Health and the Andover Public Schools, 3,193 Andover residents or around 9% of the population are food insecure, lacking consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

The panel — called re-thinking Food Insecurity in Andover — discussed things like a lack of existing infrastructure in Andover to support people struggling with food insecurity, the stigma around receiving help and a lack of awareness of the problem.

"Andover has not addressed food insecurity as well as other communities have in the general area," said Ellen Townson, Andover's representative at the Regional Food Resiliency Partnership.

Townson estimates based on data from the DTA, Massachusetts Department of Health and Andover Public Schools that almost 20% of kids in Andover, or 1,113 kids qualify for subsidized lunches.

Townson said the food insecurity infrastructure in Andover is made up of a couple of local groups and lacks centralization. Leslie Melendez, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, said this lack of infrastructure in Andover was evident during the pandemic.

"These families were coming to Lawrence and it was putting a very heavy burden on the all ready overburdened system in Lawrence." Melendez said. "People were coming to Lawrence because we had a structure in place."

Townson said that they had found that Andover had significant number of food insecure people, who didn't know how take advantage of state programs. Through an outreach program she said they been successful in signing up hundreds of people for SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance — and HIP programs.

According to statistics from Groundwork Lawrence, 53% of Andover residents who are eligible for SNAP assistance are not receiving it. North Andover has similar participation of eligible people in the program, at 50%. In Methuen 47% of eligible residents are not participating. The percentages are lower in Haverhill and Lawrence, with 41% of eligible Haverhill residents not participating and 36% of eligible Lawrence residents not participating.

Panelist talked about the high cost of living as a source of food insecurity.

"People can be just above the threshold of what the government considers to be in need of services and still not really be able to make ends meet," said Jennifer Lemmerman, Vice President of policy at Project Bread. "When household budgets get tight food is often the first sacrifice."

Project Bread is an organization that works to connect people and communities "to reliable sources of food while advocating for policies that make food more accessible," according to their website.

She added that stigma is one of the major challenges as well.

"People don't understand that food insecurity is the challenge that it is in our community, they assume that that doesn't happen here to the degree that it does," Lemmerman said. "That misinformation, that misperception perpetuates really heavy stigma to those people that are experiencing food insecurity, and because of that stigma people are less likely to seek the help that they need."

"Its okay to need help every once in a while," Melendez said. "We all need help somewhere along the way."

Emily Strong, farm manager at the Giving Garden, said she was particularly concerned with getting nutritious food to people of all ages, especially kids. The Giving Garden grows vegetables for food pantries in the greater Lawrence area.

"When kids don't have enough to eat they can't learn well, they have trouble focusing in school," Strong said.

Strong added that school lunch is currently free and available to all students for this year, and that they are advocating for that to be a permanent change. She said the change to the program has increased the percentage of kids eating school lunches from 55% to 71% at Andover Public Schools.

Another problem lies in how the town is set up, Townson said.

The 3,193 residents who are food insecure are spread out over around 30 square miles, she said. This makes it harder for people to access affordable food said Townson. She said Andover's upcoming Master Plan would be an opportunity to push for more affordable housing in centralized locations in the town.

An attendee of the panel, Chris Ouimet, said she was surprised how many people in Andover were food insecure.

"It's shocking," said Ouimet. "It feels a little overwhelming trying to figure out where I can fit in to help, but I am gonna try."

Townson said they are currently working on expanding farming opportunities in the town, getting more people signed up for state programs that they are eligible for and ways to incorporate the business community in these projects.

The Ballardvale United Methodist Church also recently opened up a food pantry and there was a high need for donations there.

"We can't keep it stocked," Townson said.

Other local organization groups offering help include Neighbors in Need and the Senior Center.

Townson added that Community Services have social workers who can assist people with SNAP applications at both the Senior Center and Youth Center.

For any help with navigating SNAP, HIP or other services, Ellen Townson can be reached at 508-954-7302.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," said Townson. "We need to start the structure of a program and tonight is the night we are building the foundation."

The panel was hosted by South Church and can be found on their youtube channel or on Andover TV.