Food Access in the Time of COVID-19

A Matter of Survival

In partnership with Bowdoin Street Health Center, four families’ generosity establishes the Food for Health program

Fruit and vegetables on tableAt the age of 12, Peter Rodrigues emigrated from the Cape Verde islands and settled with his family in the Bowdoin Geneva neighborhood, one of Boston’s oldest and most diverse communities. For Peter’s daughter, Tania Cleary, his immigration and coming-of-age story remains top of mind, and has inspired her and her husband, Denis, to support Bowdoin Street Health Center (BSHC) over the years.

As the world was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Tania and Denis were determined to give back. They chose to focus on potential ways to improve the circumstances of those hardest hit by the pandemic, which had a disproportionate effect on working families, immigrants, and communities of color. The residents of the Bowdoin Geneva neighborhood remain at particularly high risk of contracting the virus for a variety of reasons, including health disparities, population density, and the large number of essential workers living in the community. “Denis and I have always felt a strong personal connection to our city—we both grew up here, met here, and have chosen to raise our children here,” says Tania, vice chair of BIDMC’s Leadership Board, and a member of the Trustee Advisory Board. “The opportunity to do something for an area of Boston that figured prominently in our own family’s origin story was a motivating factor.”

Tania and Denis were met with enthusiasm from three fellow Leadership Board members and their spouses, all of whom run successful businesses in the Boston area, and they went to work creating a program that would support families in the Bowdoin Geneva neighborhood. Together with Liz and Drew Harrington, Corey Thomas and Anya Phillips Thomas, and Shannon and Jason Robins, they reached out to BSHC to determine the best approach to achieving this goal. “During a shared societal tragedy that falls unevenly on certain people, there is always more that we can and should do,” says Corey, a Leadership Board member. Adds Shannon, a fellow board member: “We were determined to make a contribution, but didn't want to simply write a check and walk away.”

From the beginning, the group recognized the importance of addressing food insecurity. “Improving access to healthy and affordable nutrition has always been a part of our work,” says Alberte Altine-Gibson, manager of community health at BSHC. “But the pandemic created a need in our community on a completely different scale.” The team was acutely aware of the ways food insecurity affects families. “A lack of food can have long-term effects on health and well-being, especially in children. We felt strongly that this should not happen so close to home,” says Liz, a former kindergarten teacher and Leadership Board member. “This is a matter of survival and providing access to fundamental needs,” says Corey, a longtime supporter of BSHC. “The team at Bowdoin has a deep understanding of this community and is committed to treating residents with dignity.”

Each family made a contribution and worked alongside the BSHC team to establish the Food for Health program. This involved hiring community health worker Emily Waystack to manage the effort. “We were very thoughtful about who could really benefit from this program, taking into consideration social determinants of health,” says Mary Kate Little, LICSW, program manager. The team also evaluated who was at highest risk. “Participating in this initiative helped those with chronic disease feel safer, allowing food access without going to the store,” says Waystack.

Today, six months after its inception, Food for Health has provided more than 100,000 pounds of food to 125 Bowdoin Geneva families. In partnership with the delivery company About Fresh, boxes of produce and pantry staples are delivered straight to participants’ doorsteps biweekly. “Knowing this program is helping to address health and social needs is incredibly meaningful,” says Shannon. It’s also been a chance to leverage the team’s collective expertise. “We are like-minded people, and we came together to be creative and help in solving this existential survival crisis,” says Corey. Adds Drew: “As entrepreneurs, it was rewarding to build something from the ground up and watch it grow.”

As impactful as Food for Health has been, the initiative is only getting started—and continued support is crucial. “We have yet to see what’s to come after our nation recovers from this virus, but food insecurity will not go away on its own,” says Altine-Gibson. The donors could not agree more. “Although food access issues have been exacerbated by COVID, they won’t just stop when the pandemic is over,” says Denis. “Our community really needs programs like this to keep going strong.”

To support the Food for Health program, make a gift or please email Sarah Hart, Director of Development.

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