Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest states in the country. Yet every day, hundreds of thousands of people do not have enough to eat. Mechelle, a long-time resident of Athol, shares her own story about living in rural Massachusetts and the challenges she faces to afford healthy food.
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Mechelle picks up an apple and turns it over in her hand. A small brown spot here and there, she places it in her shopping cart and turns to her mother, “There's really nothing wrong with this.” It was their monthly visit to a grocery store in Greenfield, a 40-minute round trip from Athol that Mechelle takes with her mother and daughter to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from their reduced-price produce bin. They can’t spend the gas money to make the trip more than once a month, but it's the closest affordable option for produce—just one challenge of living in rural Massachusetts.
Athol is one of nine towns in Massachusetts that make up the North Quabbin region. Coined “Tool Town,” Athol was once a hub of tool manufacturing. As the most populous town in North Quabbin, Athol feels like a big city compared to the small surrounding towns. In this rural area, businesses and services can be few and far between.
Mechelle got her first job at age 19 working for the US Postal Service, which had opened bids for two rural mail routes — one in Royalston and one in Petersham. Mechelle’s mother won both bids and gave Mechelle the route in Royalston, keeping the route in Petersham for herself. Mechelle worked this postal route for 33 years. But when her mother retired, Mechelle lost the contract, outbid by only $1,000 — “pennies in her paycheck,” as she describes it. And as a contract employee, she was not eligible for a pension. It was her first and last steady job.
A lot has changed in North Quabbin over those 33 years. Most of the big businesses—tool manufacturers, welding companies, and other industrial manufacturers—have closed. With these big employers gone, people lost their paychecks, and the smaller businesses in town slowly began shutting down too. Now, Mechelle can't think of a single clothing or furniture store in town that isn't a thrift shop.
“Most of the restaurants that try to open are closed within a month,” Mechelle says, explaining that there just aren’t enough people living in the area who can afford to eat out, including herself.
Since leaving the Postal Service, Mechelle has taken whatever work she can find, but nothing has been steady. She believes her age makes it more difficult for her to find work, that people would rather hire younger employees — even though, as she says, “I can do as good as they can, and I would never call out sick or miss a day.”
Mechelle leans on the food pantry in Greenfield run by Community Action Pioneer Valley—one of Project Bread's community partners—as well as the food pantry in Orange. “I worked all my life, I never ever thought that when I got to my age I would be struggling. Struggling should have been when I was 18 or 19 years old. I would never be able to make it without [the food pantries].” Without this assistance, Mechelle says, she wouldn’t be able to afford fresh fruits or vegetables, which she loves.
Mechelle’s spirit remains strong, but she sees other families in her building and neighborhood facing the same challenges. She's always ready to offer a ride or encourage a neighbor to accept the help they need. “If I didn’t need the free food I certainly wouldn’t be standing in line for it,” she says. “I’ll always do what I got to do for my family.”
In 2018, as part of Project Bread's 50th Celebration Community Investments, we invested $84,000 to increase access to healthy food for residents living in the Greater North Quabbin region of Massachusetts.
Expanding School Breakfast
In this rural region, 51% of children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. This means schools play a critical role as an access point for ensuring children to receive adequate nutrition. Project Bread's Child Nutrition Outreach Program worked with Athol Middle School to implement a Grab & Go school breakfast program, and our Chefs in Schools program worked with Greenfield Public Schools to improve the quality of school lunch.
Mobilizing Summer Meals
To address the summer meals gap while school is out, Project Bread supported the development and implementation of a new mobile Summer Eats program, serving free summer meals in the towns of Athol, Royalston, and Orange, where lack of transportation had prevented many families from participating.
Supporting Community Partners
Through our Community Grants Program, Project Bread invested $35,000 in supporting six community programs in Greater North Quabbin, including the food pantry run by the Community Action Pioneer Valley that provides support to Mechelle. The funds for these grants are largely made possible through our flagship community fundraiser, Project Bread's Walk for Hunger.