Once a month on a Sunday, Patti McWeeney drives nearly an hour from her home in Boxford to Temple Sinai in Marblehead. She goes to help distribute groceries for Family Table, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS) program that has been running on the North Shore for nearly 12 years.
The Marblehead distribution center serves 90 households on the North Shore. Most of the clients who receive food live in Lynn, Salem, Danvers and Peabody. Since the COVID pandemic struck, food insecurity on the North Shore and Great Boston has spiked. In September 2022, the Greater Boston Food Bank reported serving 1,250 families – compared to a pre-pandemic level of 262 households.
As need grows in the area, so does the need for more volunteers at organizations like Family Table.
“Every month we are short on volunteers, particularly on the North Shore,” says Bernice Behar, JF&CS Family Table program director. “We have a great dedicated group, but it’s just not enough. We’ve really been growing up there.”
McWeeney is one of around 40 to 50 volunteers who show up at the monthly Sunday distributions at Temple Sinai. Her job is delivery: She packs up boxes of food or picks up boxes that have been packed by other staff or volunteers, and drives around the North Shore, dropping them off at peoples’ homes.
“The people we deliver to vary in age – young, older – and location, they vary in circumstances, but [they have] one thing in common: They’re all grateful,” says McWeeney, who has been volunteering with Family Table for around four years. “We try to deliver with dignity and a smile – we don’t intrude and then we leave. And we come away from it grateful for what we have and that we’re able to help a little bit.”
Of the 90 households that Family Table serves on the North Shore, 65 get groceries delivered. The other 25 come to Temple Sinai and pick out their groceries themselves, at what the program calls the marketplace.
“It’s so well organized. It almost couldn’t be any easier. They do everything they can to prevent you from making mistakes,” says McWeeney. “They have little red wagons for you to use to schlep to the car. … It’s so well done.”
On her first Sunday, some four years ago, she went alone, but nowadays, she is accompanied by her husband, Michael, and their black lab, Rosie. Volunteers at Family Table are often joined by family members.
“[Volunteers] are so enthusiastic about the ability to bring their kids,” says Behar. “There are not that many volunteer opportunities for kids, especially opportunities to provide them a really hands-on, really meaningful, really enriching experience. People do bring their children, they help them pack the bags, they have conversations about what it means to bring food to people who need it … [it’s a] great opportunity to do something meaningful as a family.”
Family Table serves around 100 towns across Eastern Massachusetts, totaling close to 900 people each month. People enrolled in the program must live in one of the towns the organization serves, and live within less than 200% of the federal poverty guideline.
Behar estimates that around half the clients are over the age of 65, with a significant portion of that population over the age of 80, including more than 150 Holocaust survivors across the area.
During the High Holidays, Family Table includes special holiday-oriented foods and recipes for those enrolled: gefilte fish, oil, chicken, horseradish, matzo ball soup mix, apples and honey, challah, and potato pancake mix.
Food donations are crucial: Family Table works with synagogues in the area to collect the items they need. Monetary donations are also always welcome, as the organization purchases much of its food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. Θ
If you are interested in volunteering with Family Table, you can apply online at jfcsboston.org/volunteer. The next North Shore Family Table date is Oct. 29.
If you are suffering from food insecurity, or need emergency groceries, you can call Family Table at 781-693-5593 or enroll online at jfcsboston.org.