Healthy Waltham: Food Insecurity Next Door
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the National Day of Service. While the Owl is pretty confident that most, if not all, Westonians give time and money consistently and often to community service, today is a day that one can spend some time evaluating if we do enough. You might as well spend some time on your couch with your big blanket, your sleepy dog, and a large cup of tea because the weather today is classic New England windy-slushy-mixed-with-ice. And while you’re on said couch, perhaps you have some time to look at a TedX video, and think local.
The Owl has recently become obsessed with Waltham-based organizations WATCH CDC and Healthy Waltham, having met the former organization at a community discussion at St. Peter’s Church. While the Owl was there to talk about issues with protecting open spaces and finding volunteers in Weston, the director of WATCH CDC was there to talk about Waltham issues–which are completely different from ours. Food insecurity, homelessness, integrating immigrants–there’s much the average person doesn’t see on trips to Market Basket, Costco, and the restaurants of Moody Street. Healthy Waltham I discovered only last week and am now also obsessed with as well. So why, you might ask, am I so focused on Waltham, our neighbor to the east?
Waltham has around 65,000 residents within its 14ish square miles (including water). On a quick comparison with Weston–we have just about 12,000 residents within 17ish square miles. The Waltham population grew 7.6% over the past decade while Weston grew 5.2% (MA grew 7.4%–you can check all these numbers here). Waltham welcomes a number of immigrant groups including a large population of Ugandans, Mexicans, Peruvians, and Haitians. Weston is significantly less rainbowed. More than half of Waltham’s school population qualifies for free meals. Note that for the school year 2021-22, all school meals in Waltham and in Weston (and all of Massachusetts) are provided free of charge to district children.
Last week, I visited Healthy Waltham, an organization dedicated to “alleviating health disparities that exist in the City of Waltham and improving the health outcomes of the city’s most vulnerable residents through programs that improve nutrition, encourage physical activity and increase access to healthy foods.” Since the start of the pandemic, they have been focused on fighting food insecurities. You can read more about this organization here.
As you know, and possibly experienced, last week was bitter cold on Tuesday, and the prediction was for more bitter cold on Saturday and Sunday. Healthy Waltham (along with Watch CDC) was in the middle of a drive for winter coats, and Thursday was the last day to donate those coats while the coat distribution was scheduled for Saturday.
When I drove in and parked, there was already a line of people behind a sign in English and Spanish that read: “Line Starts Here.” And I discovered that every other Thursday is food pantry day, from 4-6 pm. I was there at 2 pm and already the people were waiting. Approaching the tables filling with vegetables and fruit with my armful of coats, I was greeted by several volunteers, one of whom showed me where to leave the coats in the basement of the building. He offered me a sandwich. I declined but watched briefly the logistics of the unload of food and set-up of the tables.
This morning I watched a TEDx talk given by Myriam Michel, the executive director of Healthy Waltham, who spoke about logistics and public transportation being the key to fixing food insecurity. While Waltham is served by 8 bus lines and 2 MBTA Fitchburg train stations, public transport does not serve the majority of the at-risk community members. So people coming to pick up food are unable to get it home, abandoning heavy items (potatoes, onions) along the way. Lines of cars wait two hours to receive the food, piling food and people inside.
Given the Owl’s recent post about MBTA Communities, this bears more thought. Does Waltham, for example, need more housing around public transport, or more public transport put in place around current housing? Is this a matter of shifting bus routes, or is that facile? A re-use of the Tick Tock trolley is suggested by Ms. Michel. I don’t know if that ever happened. Different questions for different towns–the one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.
And the coats? On Saturday, the doors opened at 9 am for the distribution of coats, and by 10:30 am they were gone. Feedback on their Facebook page seems to say that people were not limited to 2 coats as had been stated, so perhaps the logistics are under review there. In any case, there is a real need for these items.
If you are looking for volunteer service for just an hour or more twice a month, or once, or once in a while, consider volunteering with Healthy Waltham. This happy photo was posted by the group on Thursday, showing just a small subset of the 60 volunteers who came out between 8 am and 8 pm that day. You can reach Healthy Waltham here.
Act, give, volunteer local!