~ Editor’s Note: Donations to the Bedford Food Bank or its Diaper Bank in support of Bedford’s 2022 Day of Service honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. are welcome through Monday, January 24. Click this linke to learn more.
You might live in Bedford for decades and never need public safety services. But it’s reassuring—to say the least—to know that police and fire and rescue are always there.
Carla Olson wants the same consideration for the Bedford Food Bank.
Olson is the Healthy Bedford Coordinator in the Youth and Family Services Department. The Healthy Bedford initiative defines health as “a full range of quality of life influences: physical, emotional, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, cultural, social, and environmental.”
But if you’re hungry, all those others are just adjectives.
“Our hope is to have people see this as another town service,” said Olson, as she paused during weekly preparations in the teeming Shawsheen Room of Town Center.
The food bank distributes 35 pounds of food every Thursday afternoon to each of 50-60 households in a drive-through arrangement. Another 50 or so are delivered by volunteers with CERT – the Citizens Emergency Response Team.
The food bank distributes “what most people would do for their basic shopping,” said Olson. Most of the food (14,000 pounds a week) is provided by the Greater Boston Food Bank, so exact menus “depend on what we get.” A typical week could include chicken and beef, milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt, cereal, rice, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
Virtually all of the recipients are Bedford residents; the food bank is required to respond to anyone in need because that’s a Greater Boston Food Bank policy. There are other partners—Chip-In Farm, Stop & Shop, Whole Foods. The Bedford Arts and Crafts Society donated some hand-knitted winter hats.
“We focus on as much nutritious food as we can access,” said Olson. Half of the 35 pounds comprises fresh food; the remainder includes “pantry supplies” and household items. There is also a “diaper bank,” with items available by request through the Youth and Family Services office.
The food bank is serving 250-300 individuals every week, Olson said. Approximately a quarter of the total is elderly. But there are also families, one as large as nine, she said.
They are experiencing food insecurity because of employment and other financial issues, illness, the exigencies of quarantine. “Every person’s story is unique, but all involve hardship,” Olson said. “People should feel welcome to be here.”
Food insecurity among Bedford residents is not solely a byproduct of the pandemic. Indeed, Bedford Community Table and Food Pantry was organized and operated by Peter Grey and other volunteers beginning more than 30 years ago, and provided the grass-roots foundation for today’s program. The food pantry serves as the food bank’s nonprofit arm, Olson pointed out.
When town government instituted the food bank, the Fire Department handled management. Olson and her agency took over in the summer of 2020.
There’s a network of several dozen volunteers that make this work – not only Health and Human Services Department staff, but also Bedford High School students, Hanscom Air Force Base personnel, and CERT. “I couldn’t ask for a better crew of people,” said Olson. “It’s extremely rewarding; I am inspired each day by the volunteers’ commitment.”
A lot of preparation takes place on Wednesdays and Thursday mornings. Staff and volunteers assemble at Town Center, in the ground-level Shawsheen Room. More than 50 years ago, that was the art room for children attending Center Elementary School. (“It was perfect for a kids’ art room,” laughed retired teacher Ralph Hammond, who was a pupil at Center School. “No frills, a concrete floor – you could spill a bottle of paint and no one would care.”)
A half-century ago it was arts. Now it’s humanity. The room is organized, and overflowing with donated food – boxes piled up to six feet high, pallets with containers of squash and other root vegetables, tables laden with bags filled assembly-line-style, four-wheeled carts, institutional freezers, and refrigerators.
Every volunteer seems to know where to go. “It has been hectic,” Olson said. “We are doing the best that we can. I hope more people will take advantage of it.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763