Contrary to public perception, Newburyport has the most residents struggling with food insecurity of the 12 cities and towns served by Our Neighbors’ Table. Based on data from the Greater Boston Food Bank, more than 1300 people living in Newburyport do not have a reliable source of food every day. What’s also staggering: of those in need, only about 40% are actually accessing help through public or private organizations. “The need is there, but it’s out of sight. It’s hiding in the shadows,” shares ONT Executive Director Lyndsey Haight. ONT guests often report feelings of shame or embarrassment for needing help, a feeling ONT works to break down through our focus on hospitality and a dignified shopping experience. “We’ve been focused on treating each other with kindness and respect for 26 years. Providing service with dignity is the right thing to do, and it’s also the most effective way to bring people out of the shadows and get them the help they need,” says Haight. “Our markets might be bright and pretty, but we still understand that no one wants to have to shop here. So our priority is to make it as enjoyable as possible and to ensure that we offer the food selections that our guests tell us they need most.”
For the last five months, ONT has been working with Newburyport residents and leaders to build an infrastructure to ensure no one has to go hungry. Building on the success in Amesbury, which was declared a Food-Secure City earlier in 2018, ONT is focused on partnerships, raising awareness of the need and reaching out to residents in need. Drawing from the data provided by GBFB, ONT has partnered with the Councils on Aging in Newburyport and Salisbury, Anna Jaques Hospital and Children’s Health Care to conduct a local needs assessment to understand where, for whom and why food insecurity persists. The first 30-day survey phase was completed in September and revealed that, of 250 respondents, 1 out of 4 (25%) reported experiencing food insecurity in the last year. Survey participants cross all ages and gender. Employment was cited most often as their primary source of income, yet the vast majority of respondents identify lack of enough money as their primary barrier to accessing food.
The information gathered is being used to drive further research and to implement creative programming and strategies to eliminate barriers between people and food. The weekly Newburyport Market is a first step. Partnerships with Newburyport Public Schools and Children’s Health Care are helping to reach people where they are, break down the stigma and shame, and help people get the help they need. Since just last year, ONT has already seen a 70% increase in the number of Newburyport residents accessing their market programs.