Ellen Townson, far right, speaks as a panelist about food insecurity in 2022 (file photo).

Nearly one in five school-aged children in Andover are food insecure, and 53 percent of Andover’s food insecure families are not receiving assistance, largely because of stigma, according to speakers at “Re-Thinking Food Insecurity In Andover,” a panel discussion held at South Church Monday night.

“Andover does not address food insecurity as well as the other communities in the general area,” said Ellen Townsend of the Regional Food Resiliency Partnership and a founding board member of Andover Farmers Market. “It was really shocking to me when I started (with the Andover’s Farmers Market)…It led me to realize Andover needed some outreach and that we had a large population that is food insecure.”

Townsend is focused on closing the “SNAP gap,” or the number of families in Andover who are insecure but not receiving assistance. Her group has helped hundreds of Andover families get assistance. She is also working to expand farming opportunities in Andover and working with schools and businesses to help distribute food.

Monday’s discussion was billed as a first step in building resources and developing a plan to address food insecurity in Andover and regionally. “One of the things we know, and people are becoming more aware of, this is a problem that just happens in one community,” said Lesly Melendez, a community activist in Lawrence. “This is a problem that doesn’t have municipal borders…so we need to look at this with a regional approach.”

Jennifer Lemmerman, an Andover resident who serves as vice president of policy for Project Bread, said the problem in Andover is compounded by the stigma of food insecurity in a relatively affluent community.

“People can be just above threshold of what government considers in need of services. When household budgets are tight, food is the first thing that gets cut. You can’t skip your house payment, but you can skip lunch,” Lemmerman said. “In Andover, stigma and perception are massive challenges. People just don’t understand…they assume that doesn’t happen here to the degree that it does in other communities.”

Townsend said the problem is getting worse. The Merrimack Valley YMCA’s mobile food pantry, for example, recently had to cancel its Methuen drop off because of a shortage of food the YMCA receives from the Boston Food Bank.

“There’s a lot of little best practices in town,” she said. “The goal now is to pull them all together.”

How To Help, Where To Get Help

“This is a fight we can win,” Melendez said. “I want to put myself out of work.”

  • The Merrimack Valley YMCA runs several programs to address food insecurity, including a mobile food pantry.
  • Ballard Vale United Church recently opened a 24-hour food pantry. The church also works with Neighbors In Need to distribute Christmas dinners.
  • FoodPantries.org maintains a list of Andover-area food pantries.
  • The junior class at Andover High School is working on a Thanksgiving Food Drive with Lazarus House. The class is collecting food donations at West Middle School on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. A list of needed items is below:

Photo: The panelists at Monday’s food insecurity discussion at South Church included (from left to right) Jennifer Lemmerman, vice president of policy at Project Bread, Lesly Melendez, a community activist in Lawrence, Emily Strong of the Giving Garden in North Andover, and Ellen Townsend of the Regional Food Resiliency Partnership and founding board member of Andover Farmers Market. Moderator Rob Thomas, who sits on the board of Neighbors In Need, is seated with his back to the camera.

Watch the complete discussion on YouTube:

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