Project Bread chief oversees war with many fronts
Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread, has had a long career in social services, and she knows that giving help is much easier than accepting it.
The back-and-forth — giving and receiving — is what Parker calls “a delicate balance,” and getting that balance right is something Parker puts at the front of her work with Project Bread, a hunger relief organization.
“People just desperately need to have a sense of dignity,” Parker said. Being hungry presents even greater pain, she added, because “people are ashamed to not have enough to eat in a state that seems to be so filled with abundance.”
Parker has been at the helm of Project Bread since 1996, after working as Boston Mayor Ray Flynn’s senior policy adviser for human services, running the Boston regional office of Catholic Charities and running programs for adolescent girls and young mothers at Crittenton Hastings house. Relieving hunger in Massachusetts is Parker’s passion now, and while the problem is not solved, Parker said she knows she is getting closer.
The Walk for Hunger is Project Bread’s largest and best-known initiative, and has run since 1969. But Parker has expanded the nonprofit’s focus to include improving the quality of meals in schools. More than 34 percent of public school children in Massachusetts are eligible for free meals in school, and Parker has galvanized the organization into making school food “a protection against hunger for low-income kids,” she said.
“She’s very smart, very intuitive, and she motivates people,” said Jeff Carp, chief legal officer for State Street Corp. and a member of Project Bread’s board of directors. Carp said that Parker inspires her staff to “go down the same page and take great pride in what they’ve accomplished.”
When Project Bread started its work in schools, Parker said, the infrastructure was in place but the food needed improvement. To that end, Parker began an ongoing relationship with the Harvard University School of Public Health to study — and improve — the nutritional content of school meals.
She has launched the Chefs in Schools pilot program, located in public schools in Boston, Lawrence and Salem, providing healthy and appealing school meals. This year, Project Bread has three chefs in 12 public schools training cafeteria staff to make healthier meals, including fresh tomato sauce, multigrain pasta, turkey roll-ups and more.
Arbella Insurance Group’s charitable foundation recently pledged $1 million over four years to support Project Bread’s healthy schools foods initiative. Harvard School of Public Health will evaluate the initiative, and the findings will provide the basis to expand the program statewide.
Parker said the traditional metric for measuring school nutrition is what foods are being served, but her concern takes matters further.
“Have the children eaten the broccoli, the salad and the fruit?” she asked. “What is in the kids’ stomachs? It’s what we care about.”
Bringing healthy food to school is one of Parker’s major accomplishments and Project Bread’s latest approach to resolving hunger issues in Massachusetts; still, the Walk for Hunger defines the organization. The walk raises about $4.8 million each year, representing about half of the organization’s budget, and last May brought out 42,000 participants and about 2,500 volunteers.
“It really belongs to the community in a deep way,” Parker said, later adding, “I find my work so exciting. It really renews itself for me.”