- Lexington Interfaith Food Pantry is seeing about 20-25 more families per week than it did pre-pandemic
- Takeda Pharmaceuticals donated $250,000 to support the community’s pandemic needs in March 2020
- The Chinese American-Association of Lexington raised more than $278,025 for pandemic assistance, supporting 61 hospitals, 42 nursing homes, 26 town departments, 11 businesses, and seven local organizations, according to CAAL President Hua Wang
Read on to hear leaders from five organizations reflect on efforts to support Lexington throughout the COVID-19 pandemic…
When Hua Wang spoke at Lexington’s community summit meeting on March 9, 2020, he meant business.
“I basically made a very passionate plea, and said, this is serious, this is no joking matter: School should be closed, and we should close down,” he recalled. Wang was speaking in his capacity as president of the Chinese American Association of Lexington.
At the time, there were 40 presumptive cases of COVID-19 statewide, and just one case confirmed, but his message was heard: In a virtual community forum just three days later, School Superintendent Dr. Julie Hackett announced that Lexington Public Schools would indeed close for two weeks, along with several school districts across the state.
Many members of the Chinese community in Lexington had been paying close attention to COVID-19 well before the virus’ documented arrival in Massachusetts. Throughout February, CAAL had offered over 40 hospitals in China pandemic-related aid. “We knew how bad it could become,” Wang reflected. Looking back, he admitted that “even we didn’t anticipate it was gonna be … this bad.” Yet at the March 12 forum, Wang was already insisting that the town would have to unite to weather whatever COVID-19 would bring: “We have to band together to deal with this.”
Over the past 13 months, Lexington has lived by this approach — coming together to collectively address the severe issues raised and intensified by the pandemic, ranging from food insecurity, to financial pressure, to mental and emotional health needs. The community has risen to the challenge, providing extensive services and support in the form of time, money, and even community art.
We spoke with leaders from five Lexington organizations and initiatives, who shared that even in a relatively affluent community, the pandemic exacerbated many existing challenges – but the community responded in kind with an outpouring of support, which continues today. While some organizations have seen needs revert to pre-pandemic levels, others continue to see sustained higher levels of need – and new needs continue to emerge.
An Acute Increase in Need: Hungry Families in Lexington
At the Lexington Interfaith Food Pantry, needs have grown throughout the pandemic. Usha Thakrar, co-coordinator and board member, reports that the pantry has received a “significant increase” in clients.
At the national level, food insecurity is a severe issue intensified by COVID-19 – but Massachusetts has the greatest percentage increase in food insecurity nationwide due to the pandemic, with an increase of 59%.
The food pantry, operated out of the basement of the Church of Our Redeemer on Saturday mornings for 31 years, historically serves Lexington, Winchester, and Lincoln. (The latter towns do not maintain food pantries of their own.) Early in the pandemic, the Lexington Food Pantry opened its doors to clients from Bedford, Burlington, and Arlington as well – since those towns’ respective pantries temporarily closed. Now that these pantries have reopened, Thakrar redirects clients from those areas to local options. Still, “there’s a handful of clients that we inherited at the beginning of COVID that are still people we serve week over week,” Thakrar added.
In March and early April of 2020, the food pantry actually saw a major decline in clients, which Thakrar suggested meant many clients were opting to remain home or were unaware that the pantry was still open for the early weeks of the stay-at-home advisory. Following this initial lull, the food pantry experienced a dramatic increase in clients: Pre-COVID, the Lexington Food Pantry served approximately 65-70 families per week – with an average of 140 individuals per week. During the pandemic, the food pantry saw the number of families in need rise to an average of 90 families a week between April and June. This level of need – 85 to 90 families a week – continues to persist. In addition to serving more families, Thakrar noted that the food pantry has been serving “much bigger families – lots of families with kids, lots of little kids.” Instead of 140 individuals per week, they now see about 255.
Further, since Thakrar has kept data, the food pantry typically serves 20-25 new families per year – but it has served 142 new families since last March. While some of these clients are short-term, others return consistently.
Quick Pivots and Adapted Services
Lexington Food Pantry is far from the only organization to see an increase in need: Harshini Joshi, co-chapter leader for Lexington of the Neighbor Brigade alongside Ragini Pathak, noted a similar uptick in clients requiring assistance. Neighbor Brigade builds community-based volunteer networks which offer support for residents “facing sudden crisis” in the form of meal preparation, transportation, and other household assistance, according to their mission. Last April, Neighbor Brigade went from receiving four requests from families per month to 15 per month and this number continued to increase until August, according to Joshi’s estimates.
Neighbor Brigade expanded its services during the early pandemic, especially to “seniors in the community” at high risk from COVID-19. Lexington’s chapter of Neighbor Brigade began offering weekly grocery trips – an important service for seniors, since many were isolated and relied on public transportation prior to the pandemic. By August, when guidance about masking was more prevalent and dedicated services were provided for seniors, Neighbor Brigade could scale back these efforts.
Joshi admitted that for herself and Pathak, coordination of volunteer efforts “kind of became a full-time job.”
In the early days of the pandemic, organizations faced a steep challenge coordinating various efforts and ensuring they were neither duplicating services nor leaving holes in the community’s needs. Melissa Interess, director of Human Services for the Town of Lexington, began hosting a weekly call with over 15 volunteer, state, and town entities to assist in coordinating various efforts – including the Lexington Food Pantry, Neighbor Brigade, and CAAL, as well as organizations such as CALex, LexEatTogether, and the Chamber of Commerce. As the initial spike in need declined, this call eventually dropped back to biweekly, then monthly in the fall, before being canceled in October or November, Interess said. But, “it was incredibly successful, and it was a really good way to pool resources.” As a result of the collaboration, the Town compiled a resource list for confronting various challenges associated with the pandemic.
In bringing together such a range of groups, the Town helped coordinate and interconnect financial support, emotional and mental health resources, and logistical assistance. The Town itself was “the hub in terms of the Town’s response to financial assistance” thanks to an early $250,000 donation from Takeda Pharmaceuticals, as well as the early efforts of the Fund for Lexington to meet “initial immediate needs,” Interess noted. Although headquartered in Cambridge, Takeda has a Lexington campus which employs about 3,000 people.
From Interess’ observations, while isolation and transportation-oriented initiatives were focused on seniors, the “vast majority” of financial assistance recipients were younger families – “people with kids living at home who needed assistance.”
Joshi stressed that Neighbor Brigade worked closely with Interess to reach clients with acute financial needs, including families and non-seniors. “She was very, very important in helping us manage that.”
While the Town helped connect various organizations, the Lexington Food Pantry shifted its internal practices as well.
In the past, the food pantry offered an experience very similar to shopping – an in-person food selection process. Health and safety guidelines required the pantry to change its approach: Since March, the team has provided an online form for identifying what items families need. Volunteers then collect the items for clients to pick up or have delivered. At the outset of the pandemic, Thakrar explained that the pantry offered delivery “to anybody and everybody who wanted it.” Due to decreased need, they now offer delivery to people quarantining or lacking their own transportation, amounting to about 12 families a week.
The new online system may have some benefits for clients: According to Thakrar, pantry volunteers hypothesized that perhaps the online form has increased usage of the pantry by allowing clients in need to avoid the stigma of entering the pantry, since they can instead rely on pickup or delivery. “The more anonymous way of placing an order online and either picking it up or having it delivered to your home has, I think, made this a more accessible service for some people,” she explained.
Another potential hurdle to food access was removed in light of COVID-19: Whereas prior to the pandemic, the food pantry had required clients to verify eligibility through the town’s Department of Human Services, Thakrar noted that the board opted to streamline the process by suspending this requirement through 2020 and the rest of 2021, after which it will be reevaluated.
“I think everyone who does work in this space has had to come up with creative solutions for addressing not just what we were doing before, but what has also been exponentially increasing need,” Thakrar reflected.
Outpouring of Support
Although CAAL was already focused on providing pandemic aid to China, “of course, by mid-March, beginning of March last year, we shifted the entire focus to the U.S. here because we realized this is happening at home,” Wang said.
Like other local organizations, CAAL pulled out all the stops to support COVID-19 relief. Usually, CAAL fundraises for its own operations, but this year instead supported other nonprofits integral to relief efforts. Specifically, according to Wang, CAAL fundraised $278,025, most of which went to “procurement of the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)”; donated 316,952 individual items of PPE (including N95 respirators and protective suits); supported 61 hospitals, 42 nursing homes, 26 town departments, seven local organizations, and 11 businesses – from Lexington to other Massachusetts communities and beyond – and served 174 hot meals to frontline essential workers. Wang also shared that CAAL provided $1,000 grants to organizations including Neighbor Brigade and the Munroe Center for the Arts, donated $5,000 to the Lexington Interfaith Food Pantry, and contributed $3,000 to the Sponsor a Basket Youth Program for the Lexington Food Pantry, as well as $10,691 to a Lexington Public Schools COVID-19 testing program.
To explain this formidable fundraising, Wang said that “people really trust us” due to previous successful community fundraising efforts, such as for the Cary Memorial Library (where Wang is also a member of the Foundation Board). He added that the majority of donations to CAAL came from the Chinese American community of Lexington.
“I don’t think anyone can imagine a town-level level nonprofit organization can deliver these numbers,” Wang said, but “it’s been an epic year.”
For the Lexington Food Pantry, this has also been an epic year for fundraising. “Lexington Food Pantry has received more donations in the last 12 months than in any other 12-month period in its history – by a long shot,” Thakrar noted. The Pantry’s Amazon Wish List has proved particularly useful for the food bank. Lexington’s experience parallels national and global trends: Thakrar, who also serves as Executive Director for the food nonprofit Boston Area Gleaners, added that philanthropy for food pantries increased significantly within the past year.
Volunteers and their time have been just as important to CAAL and the food pantry as money. A core group of approximately 15 volunteers is critical for the pantry’s sustained, expanded operation. Additional volunteers who assist with deliveries, as well as high school and college students who carry food to clients’ cars, bring the total team to about 20 individuals. While they continue to receive consistent interest from other potential volunteers, Thakrar noted that the pantry is still limiting volunteer numbers to maintain social distancing and comply with pandemic capacity restrictions.
While the Saturday morning food pantry work is the most visible, Thakrar explained that “the truth is that there’s a week-long worth of activity that happens.” Volunteers shop for food, set up the day before, and deliver food, among other unseen tasks: “There’s a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes stuff that happens that isn’t as visible to the clients or to the general public — but [there’s] a whole group of volunteers that just does this.”
“The community has been extraordinarily supportive during this time,” Thakrar summarized. “I think that’s important – all sorts of people have reached out and stepped up and made donations, whether they be writing a check, or dropping off a case of whatever. And that’s been hugely sustaining for us.”
The year has not been without challenges. In contrast to monetary donations, food donations have been more volatile – especially due to the “hoarding” during the early pandemic. Similarly, some major annual food drives were canceled due to the pandemic, though many of these resumed during the fall and winter. Thakrar also credited the Lexington Youth Commission with delivering “a giant dump truck” full of food, as well as many organizations who purchased gift cards for distribution.
Joshi felt similarly: “We really can’t do the work that we do without the Lexington volunteers that we have.” For Neighbor Brigade, community support was also integral to connecting clients with resources. The Lexington Mavens, for instance – a Facebook group of female Lexington residents – sent many messages alerting community members to specific families facing major challenges, often related to COVID-19. The Town’s Senior Services also helped get the word out to clients in need, Joshi added.
Even some of these clients felt so grateful for the support Neighbor Brigade offered them that they pitched in themselves to support others: “We had so many seniors feeling bad that they were having to receive help – when in the past, they were always the ones to volunteer. And so many of them said when this is all over, we want to donate to your organization or be able to help out,” Joshi recounted. Some clients receiving grocery deliveries, for instance, donated gift cards to Neighbor Brigade.
“It really was enlightening to see where everyone was willing to donate in terms of time and money,” Joshi said.
Not all donations or contributions to town residents during COVID-19 took the form of food or PPE. The Munroe Center for the Arts offered Lexingtonians more psychological support in the form of festive displays, including the Signs of Inspiration project, which displayed four five-foot-tall colorful structures around town: “Hope” at the Stone Building along Mass. Ave; “Love” in Tower Park; “2021” in Emery Park – loaned to the Minuteman High School students for their graduation – and a valentine heart along Mass Ave.
Executive Director Cristina Burwell recalled that the idea for this project “started with a conversation with the [Lexington] Economic Development Department and their hope that we could … [provide] activation in winter – that we could enliven the space a little bit.” The project became a popular destination for photos; according to ArtWalk Committee member Upasna Chhabra, “we got such good feedback, we were like, you know, this is nice, just to give people a little bit of hope.”
“I think as people have expressed themselves in the artwork that they do, that has brought joy to people” amidst the toll of COVID-19, Burwell said.
In various ways during the pandemic, Chhabra observed that “everyone has done something” to help.
Onward and Upward: Support Still Needed
The Munroe Center has been hit “really, really hard” by the pandemic, Burwell stressed: Classes remain at half capacity, as was last year’s summer camp – the major money earner for the center. She hopes to “raise awareness of the value of the arts within the town proper – not only the residents, but have it be appreciated and recognized by the town and funded where appropriate.”
For Joshi, the pandemic showed how easily anyone could have their foundation shaken enough to require the kind of philanthropic assistance Neighbor Brigade and others provide: “I was struck at how many people were food insecure, or really struggling with maintaining their household, in a town like Lexington. Some [clients] had some of these issues pre-COVID. But some of them did not.” She observed that “it takes a little, I think, to kind of rock your world; it takes a little to crumble down that stability that you might have … We’re all pretty vulnerable to it, no matter who you are.”
In terms of support needed now, even if Neighbor Brigade currently operates at its pre-COVID level, “we are always accepting donations of gift cards to help out with meal delivery.” Raising awareness to connect important services with new clients also remains important, Joshi added.
Thakrar stressed that the certain increased needs will not recede anytime soon. Regardless of whether or when the pandemic abates, “the levels of food insecurity that we are currently seeing are not going to go away,” she said. “The food insecurity is going to outlast the current health pandemic – by years.” Even as “there [are] some signs of an economic resurgence, it takes a long time for those impacts to be felt by families who are really struggling.” As a result, the food pantry needs ongoing support to continue providing for clients: “We will continue to have the kinds of volume that we’re seeing and therefore the kind of monetary and or food donation needs that we are currently meeting.”
According to Interess, the Town continues to see some financial need, but the moratorium on evictions and pandemic unemployment helped people get by who had previously required Town or other assistance. “We haven’t seen any sort of spikes really in need since probably the fall … It’s come down to a low trickle.” Nonetheless, “help is still available …. We will always take a phone call just to talk through any particular situation, even if people don’t think it applies to what we offer.”
Wang recalled that in the same meeting where he had called for the town to band together in March 2020, he called for “early actions against any xenophobia or anti-Asian sentiment resulting from the pandemic” – words that hold a bitter prescience now. “We feel lucky we’re in Lexington … but even Lexington, you don’t feel like it’s a bubble anymore. Because the community’s on edge. Now, we don’t feel safe.”
Between the pandemic and anti-Asian hate, Wang said that frankly, it “seems like we never got a break. That’s how we feel. One thing after the other.”
But Wang and CAAL have not let these challenges dim their constructive efforts. CAAL has held multiple Stop Asian Hate rallies on Boston Common, and distributed over 700 free lawn signs and 1,200 car stickers, Wang said. Wang has been heartened to see that “just like with the COVID relief, there was just incredible support from the community – not only here in Lexington, but beyond.”
One of the rallies snaked around the Boston Marathon route – “because we’re thinking about this anti-Asian hate [as] systematic, so this is going to be a marathon” and rather than a “quick solution,” it requires “a sustained effort” to meaningfully combat.
As Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month approaches in May, Wang said Lexingtonians and others can support the Asian American community by starting with allyship and education – learning about Asian American history, culture, and important figures, and supporting the standardized inclusion of these topics in K-12 curricula.
“We need people to join forces with us, right, supporting this call for actions, join us to call the legislature,” he said – encouraging everyone to contact their local and federal representatives to support, among similar initiatives, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in Congress. The Senate passed this legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support on April 22.
While rallies raise awareness, “afterward comes the hard work, the legwork – with everybody together to make it happen.”