ONE BY ONE, THEY FILE discreetly through the brown door, brawny and feeble, white and black, in T-shirts and button-downs, jeans and slacks. On this misty October morning, the Canton Food Pantry, in a cramped room at the back of the old high school building, is bustling. Only a few customers can fit at a time. Others wait in a row of maroon plastic chairs. Here, among the narrow aisles, the depth and diversity of need quickly becomes evident: Most of these people, it occurs to me, would not look out of place in line at Whole Foods.
The shelves are stocked with 28-ounce cans of Furmano’s Italian-style spaghetti sauce, 16-ounce bags of Goya barley, fresh eggplant, bread, apple juice, cans of green beans and black beans. The most talked-about item today, though, lies in a green shopping cart parked in the corner: a pile of blue-green Hubbard squash, looking like bloated, gnarled footballs, waiting for brave souls to bring them home.
No takers at first. “It’s ugly squash,” one woman mutters. “I have no idea what that is,” a second shopper says. “I bet you if you put it outside the raccoons would eat it,” someone else adds. Halfway through the day’s two-hour shopping window, nobody’s touched one.
And then, just like that, a woman with cropped hair, red pants, and a gray sweater reaches in and takes a Hubbard without hesitation. At the counter, she is asked what she will do with it. “Make soup,” the woman says matter-of-factly, explaining how she will drop it on the ground to crack the thick shell. It turns out the woman, 48, is Haitian-American and plans to save it for New Year’s. (Many Haitians mark their country’s independence from France, on January 1, 1804, by making the squash-based soup joumou, which was off-limits to Haitian slaves during French rule.)
She’s a trendsetter. The very next shopper, an older woman in a dark red velour jacket, takes a Hubbard, followed a little while later by a middle-aged woman who grabs one, too. After two hours, the doors close. Twenty-seven people have come through the Canton Food Pantry. Three of four Hubbard squash are gone.
Less than two weeks before, those Hubbards were still on the vine at a nearby farm. Over the course of 10 days, they were picked, sold to the Greater Boston Food Bank, and then distributed to food pantries like this one, and to other hunger-relief agencies in the area. The life of these Hubbard squash, from the field to the tables of the needy, helps tell the story of a bigger journey: the evolution and expansion of the food bank, which has matured into a state-of-the-art food distribution giant that now feeds more than 90,000 people a week.
The food bank made a splash a few years ago by building a new headquarters alongside Interstate 93 south of downtown. You’ve seen it — the one with 565 accent panels on the facade that, viewed from a certain angle, depict a red ear of wheat. If you’re like me, you’ve driven by and wondered, what goes on in that cavernous place, anyway? The answer is this: a lot more than I thought.
‘THAT’S A BIG BUILDING, Catherine!” Like many other I-93 commuters, Governor Deval Patrick had watched the Greater Boston Food Bank’s 117,000-square-foot Yawkey Distribution Center go up. Patrick, seeing food bank president and CEO Catherine D’Amato at an event, marveled at its scope. “I said, ‘It’s a big building because it’s a big problem,’ ” D’Amato recalls.
Indeed, the building, erected on a former incinerator site and funded with a $35 million capital campaign, made a bold statement when it opened in April 2009. But D’Amato and her team knew that having a modern warehouse and distribution center — one built specifically for this purpose — would dramatically expand their ability to feed people. They had maxed out their old facility, and were even turning donors away. Just like a business, the Greater Boston Food Bank needed to invest in order to grow.
Productivity soon soared. The food bank, which supplies more than 550 food pantries, meal programs, and shelters in 190 cities and towns, distributed 27.9 million pounds of food in its final full year in the old building. In the fiscal year that ended this September 30, the nonprofit distributed 40.8 million pounds, a nearly 47 percent increase. The “dump rate” — the proportion of food that has to be thrown away — has dipped from 4.5 percent in the former facility to 1.8 percent today. In some cases, the physical handling of food — how much the staff has to move it around — has dropped significantly, resulting in a huge gain in efficiency. “The capability that this building has brought us is enormous,” D’Amato says.Continued...