Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Devens celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, an arc of time that has seen them grow from an all-volunteer hot-meals program to serving 576 families during 2022 across seven area towns. A substantive part of that growth has been enabled by partnering with GBFB and taking advantage of capacity-building grants through GBFB’s Community Investment Grants Program.
The first GBFB grant, for a walk-in cooler/freezer, came when Loaves & Fishes renovated its facility in 2018 – in no more than seven weeks, by moving temporarily to a local school cafeteria during the summer. The new cooler/freezer proved the cornerstone of the new construction, which more than doubled the pantry’s footprint.
“That really relieved so much stress for us,” says Executive Director Patricia Stern. “We could now accept more donations. We could increase our poundage coming in from GBFB. And we could serve our clients so much better and provide them with so much more.”
Their second GBFB grant came in 2021, rescuing them from the patchwork of transport solutions they’d had in place. They’d managed until then by first sending a fleet of private vehicles each week to pick up food orders from The Greater Boston Food Bank, but knew that such an approach wasn’t particularly efficient or safe. Then, for a decade, Bemis Associates in Shirley lent them their box truck and their driver once a week, on their own dime, to pick up groceries. COVID put a stop to that.
“We knew we had to be independent,” says Stern. A $40,000 Community Investment grant, combined with a $50,000 state budget earmark, allowed them to purchase a 24-foot insulated truck, whose use they’ve maximized by partnering with six other area pantries in Acton, Bedford, Medway (2 pantries), Pepperell and Townsend. “We estimate that we transport approximately 79,000 pounds, or 39.5 tons, of groceries per month for Loaves & Fishes and our partners,” Stern says. “It’s a real success story in collaboration.”
As it did for most of us, COVID changed much for the pantry. Prior to the pandemic, Loaves & Fishes operated as ‘client choice’, where clients had the opportunity to talk face-to-face with counselors, and counselors were in tune with their needs with anything from advice on SNAP benefits to fuel assistance – or more. “We know that when folks come through our doors, it’s more than just about food,” explains Stern. “There’s always something underlying… There’s neglect, abuse, mental illness, job loss…”
COVID forced Loaves & Fishes to make a sharp pivot, and within 24 hours they’d converted to a drive-through pantry. Stern says they don’t have the space to run both client-choice and drive-through models simultaneously, but they’re doing their best to keep customer interaction a top priority. A ‘talkie-box’ – think ordering Dunkin’ from your car – now serves the drive-through, and the development of an online ordering system, now in its pilot phase, is planned for roll-out in July. They’ll also be adding a client-choice-by-appointment service, to give clients back some of that freedom of selection they once enjoyed.
“So, I’m excited about these developments,” says Stern, “but it’s also a challenge. We’re trying to give our clients all of those options.”
Recently GBFB announced an additional round of Community Investment Grants to partner agencies. This investment will help them to further expand their capacity to provide additional healthy, nutritious food to meet the need in the community.