Massachusetts Food System Collaborative
Massachusetts Food System Collaborative

January 15, 2021

Adapting to COVID: Food for Free

In June, 2020, the Collaborative began interviewing stakeholders about changes to their operations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The three completed case studies serve as a record of that extraordinary time, illustrating how local groups were able to adapt and what they learned about what's needed to ensure resiliency in the face of future crises.

Founded in 1981, Food For Free (FFF) is a food rescue organization located in Cambridge, MA. The non-profit focuses on “bridging the gap between waste and want” by receiving food donations from a variety of sources – supermarkets, wholesalers, and farmers markets – and distributing them to more than 100 different relief agencies that serve low-income individuals. FFF believes that everybody has the right to healthy food.

FFF’s Executive Director Sasha Purpura has pioneered new approaches toward those goals in recent years, shifting growth and investment to getting food to people where they congregate in the community:  at schools. FFF launched two Weekend Backpack Programs to improve access to healthy foods for students and their families, created School Markets to act as food pantries for communities, and began a Family Meals Program that distributes individual prepared meals for working parents and students. FFF partnered with Biogen, a biotechnology company in Kendall Square, to house their food preparation kitchen for Family Meals. Having physical access to educational institutions to provide people with donated, prepared, or purchased food was core to the organization’s programming prior to the pandemic.

COVID-19 disrupted many aspects of FFF's operations. Biogen closed and severed FFF’s link to a commercial kitchen. Schools closed and suddenly the organization could not continue its school programs. Principal aspects of their food rescue model were suddenly untenable. The speed of the shutdowns shocked the organization’s leadership. Purpura noted that while previous economic downturns may have increased emergency food need in the past, the manner in which the pandemic disrupted the emergency food system was unprecedented. People lost jobs while food pantries simultaneously closed and grocery store shelves went bare. The school closures were especially challenging. COVID “shifted access,” said Purpura, “changing the underlying foundation of how people were accessing food through the emergency food system.”

For FFF, adapting to the conditions created by the pandemic was entirely reaction and response. The organization did not have time to plan or test new programs. The hunger needs of the communities were great and had to be addressed as quickly as possible. FFF began a COVID-19 Relief Delivery Program that provided weekly food delivery for Cambridge residents at high risk for food insecurity during the crisis. Additionally, FFF took on a central role coordinating emergency food response in Cambridge on behalf of city government.

While leadership felt there was no better alternative, this approach was not perfect. FFF had to deal with many broken systems. For example, there was no established method to share volunteer lists with partner organizations, which meant major delays in getting volunteers working. There was no existing means to map home deliveries and trucks routes efficiently. Additionally, it was hard to source personal protective equipment to ensure worker safety. These challenges were painful for the organization and resulted in stress for its staff.

Over time, the complications have lessened but the organization looks with hesitancy towards the future as the threat of a resurgence of the virus looms. “I’ve learned that our emergency food system wasn’t prepared for COVID-19 and that needs to change,” says Purpura. Organizations like FFF will be critical in the age characterized by pandemic, she says, because they provide assurances that food will reach those in need even if core emergency food system actors, such as food pantries reliant on volunteers, close down.

The pandemic highlighted many strengths of FFF’s model. The organization’s extensive partner network allowed them to greatly expand their reach and impact quickly. “Hyper communication” and transparency were key to these efforts. Once the pandemic hit, ensuring safe distancing for any type of activity was crucial. FFF’s partnership with the City of Cambridge enabled the organization to access a spacious city building from which it ran its programming. FFF began collaborating with Vinfen, a mental health service provider operating through Massachusetts to serve new communities outside of the Greater Boston area.

FFF also began working with Boston Area Food Gleaners and Costa to bring in new food streams that used federal relief programs like the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program to source fresh regional produce for distribution. COVID demonstrated that the emergency food system effectively leverages partnerships to grow the populations being served in times of crisis. The scale of emergency food response can develop more effectively when coupled with local knowledge and community engagement. However, the resources available to fund these collaborative efforts are temporary and unstable: The Farmers to Families Food Box Program has short two-month contracts and there is a need for something longer-term so they can actually plan and provide relief to the overworked staff.

While the novelty of COVID-19 is gone, Food For Free continues to adjust its future plans. “We are planning short term because that’s all we can do. Access and where people are, are critical to getting people food” says Purpura. “And when you don’t know where they’re going to be, it’s hard.” They faced a future unlike any they have ever known – Sasha Purpura characterized it as “planning for a summer when children are not at camp.”

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Purpura, “but it’s unclear how many miles have been run.”


Return to full list of news entries.

Massachusetts Food System Collaborative