Healthy Waltham: Pivoting To Feed A Community

Through a range of new partnerships, this agile health-based organization jumped into action to meet changing needs.

June 29, 2020

Healthy Waltham logo
When she started as Healthy Waltham’s executive director last September, Myriam Michel could not have foreseen how drastically the months ahead would reroute the organization’s path.

Healthy Waltham was best known for a walking program it ran at Bentley University, and it had robust senior programming through Waltham Connections for Healthy Aging. At the end of 2019, Healthy Waltham was working on a rebranding effort, ready to kick off some new programs and diversify existing ones. These included the development of intergenerational cooking programs that spotlight distinctive cultural foods, and growing its walking program into a more inclusive active aging program for seniors, especially from Waltham’s immigrant communities.

When COVID-19 prompted shut-downs of so much of public life, Healthy Waltham had to pivot quickly, suspending its nascent new programs and turning all its attention to beefing up its existing food assistance efforts. The nonprofit already ran a monthly mobile food pantry in collaboration with Greater Boston Food Bank and Waltham Nutrition School and a monthly drop-off at senior housing in collaboration with Waltham Connections for Healthy Aging. In April, however, they went from serving 250–300 people a month to serving 650 people a week.

At Healthy Waltham’s May 7 pantry, they served around 675 people, Michel reports, and they’ve started seeing more drivers than walkers show up. “My colleague pointed out that means that people who never considered a pantry are now needing it,” she says. “I’m amazed how many come and how early they come stand in line.” The pantry typically opens at 4:00 p.m., and staff have learned that people start standing in line at 11:30 a.m.

A man wearing a black hoodie and protective mask is taking produce out of boxes and handing it to someone on his left.
Photo courtesy: Healthy Waltham's Facebook page
“We already had the infrastructure [for food distribution] in place,” Michel says, “but not at this volume, of course.” At the beginning, Michel worked with two part-time staffers. Since more than quadrupling food pantry efforts, Healthy Waltham has had to hire consultants and more part-time staff. “We try hard to hire Waltham folks, especially local people effected by COVID-19,” Michel says, and the consultants have helped with logistics.

Several partners the organization had worked with in the past have been stellar. Michel reports that the Forsyth Institute, for instance, donated dental kits for families (more than 1,900 toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss) to be given away with food. But new partnerships have been formed as well. “That’s something bittersweet in our pivot away from other programs to focus on food,” says Michel. “We hated to put those programs on hold, but the situation has prompted connections with new food organizations and farms, like Food for Free, Loving Spoonful, Food Link, Gaining Ground, and Boston Gleaners…. They’ve been instrumental in helping supplement food and donations. At one recent pantry, Gleaners brought plantains, which were really appreciated! Building partnerships had been on our radar, but the new urgency propelled us to do it right now. And it’s been amazing. The community… all have one mission: to feed our neighbors.”

An overhead shot of multiple white bags of groceries filled with produce, broccoli or carrots on the top of each one.
Photo courtesy: Healthy Waltham's Facebook page
Because of that, Healthy Waltham is able to give out hefty amounts of food, typically four or five grocery bags, with an emphasis on providing complete meals that include fresh fruit and produce, and frozen meat. “If we do run out, which has happened,” Michel says, “we’ve gotten gift cards donated (and some purchased), so you always leave with something.”

With the suddenly ballooning demand, combined with the extra challenges of distancing and sanitization, the labor has been relentless and exhausting. There are moments that crystalize how worthwhile it is, though. One evening after working outdoors a whole, rainy, windy day, when staff were wet and tired and cold, a forwarded email came from the mayor, who had received it from a resident:

“I’m here in my apartment at St. Mary’s unpacking, and tears of gratitude are flowing. I can’t remember having fresh eggs. Everyone standing in line thanks you.”