Through Pandemics & Collapsed Ceilings, the Watertown Food Pantry Stays Open

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Food on the shelfs at the Watertown Food Pantry, which has seen an increase in the number of people using its services since the start of the Pandemic. (Photo by Charlie Breitrose)

With her pert Boston accent and indefatigable can-do attitude, Kathleen Cunningham welcomes visitors into the basement of the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church. It’s a big open space, with low ceilings, pink walls, some generous storage space and an older industrial kitchen. It’s also very obviously crumbling. Construction tape blocks off part of the kitchen. Seams are visible from when the ceiling fell in one morning in February in 2022. But the pantry is open every week without fail, as it has been for 34 years.

This story is the fourth in a series by Watertown News, in conjunction with Watertown Cable Access Television, called “Watertown’s Hidden Problem: Food Insecurity Among Us.” (See part one here).

Cunningham has served as the program coordinator for the Watertown Food Pantry since May 2017. Previously she worked in the Newton Public Schools’ food services division for 17 years.

The Pantry serves about 250 individuals a week, and 13,000 people annually. That’s according to Lydia McCoy, Watertown’s director of Senior Services, who oversees the Pantry. Not all the people come from Watertown; Cunningham said one week in October, folks from nine different communities across the area came to pick up food.

“We have a lot of people who come because they have no other resources for food. They don’t qualify for SNAP or anything like that,” Cunningham said. “You do have some who don’t work, but people travel to food pantries to get food because the cost [of groceries] is crazy. I mean it’s just overwhelming.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that food prices rose an average 5.3 percent in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area in 2023. The Government Accountability Office, in an April 2023 report, attributed this not only to inflation but to disruptions in supply chains: weather events, plant and animal diseases, bottlenecks due to slowdowns in production or workers getting sick, a drought in the United States, and the war in Ukraine were all major contributing factors. From 2022 to 2023, the average cost of a loaf of bread went from $1.75 to $1.97.

Photo by Amy Trapasso Watertown Food Pantry Coordinator Kathy Cunningham and members of Watertown Brownie Troop 70133 who donated Girl Scout cookies to the Food Pantry.

And so the Watertown Food Pantry stays bustling, every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.., providing one of the few no-questions-asked options available to those who are unsure from whence their next meal or bag of groceries is coming. And people do come, from all walks of life.

“We have probably around 25 homeless individuals, but you could be owning a home and need to come to the pantry,” Cunningham said. “When I first began here, we were serving 40 families a week.”

That number ticked up to 70 families a week, and then once the pandemic hit it was 200 families every day they were open at the height of COVID, plus between 25-55 deliveries, which Cunningham makes herself.

Recently, she said, there’s been a slight uptick in college and theological students have come by, both to volunteer and to get food for themselves.

“We have a lot of college students who are homeless, I would say that’s one of the bigger influxes,” she said. “A lot of college classes are on Zoom so they’re not going to the campuses to eat, that’s the feeling I get. I would say it’s maybe 8 percent college students.”

Never Missed a Day

In March 2020, Cunningham said, they could see it all coming. Every place was closing, even a lot of the other local food pantries.

“My husband bought plexiglass and we put up a safety barrier for the clients to stop by and see what their needs were,” she said. “And we just opened and we just kinda controlled the amount of people (coming) into the building at the time. Our volunteers never missed a day.”

Even when the ceiling collapsed on February 27, 2022, the pantry still never missed a day. They set up outside in the cold for all of the nine weeks it took to fix up the place. For her efforts during the pandemic, State Rep. Steven Owens and the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women recommended Cunningham for a Commonwealth Heroine award.

The ceiling in the basement of United Methodist Church, home to the Watertown Food Pantry, collapsed in February 2020. (Courtesy of Kathy Cunningham)

The basement, however, has seen better days. The Methodist Church is about to undergo construction. On December 15th, McCoy announced that the city council had approved a $152,000 ARPA grant to renovate the Parker building for a new food pantry location.

“The space [in the basement of the Methodist Church] is limited and the time during the week there is limited,” McCoy said. “This [move to the Parker Building] would allow us to continue those services, expand those services, to build more partnerships bringing more food and nutrition programs to Watertown.”

The pantry will still use the church as a satellite location, McCoy said.

Cunningham was resigned, but not thrilled, about the move. Further, as of the first week of January 2024, she said no one had officially informed her of the move.

“Nobody has come to me to say ‘we’ve definitely decided on the Parker School,'” she said. That building, she added, did not have much in the way of privacy. “The biggest downside is where it’s located; it’s a public building. It’s all City workers there,” she said. “There’s no cameras on my building [the UMC]. There’s nobody saying ‘Oh, Sally was there again.’

“Is it glamorous here? No,” she said of the UMC basement. “But in all honesty, this is the best fit. It’s very private, it’s very quiet. It’s good parking. People know where it is. It’s central to the City.

“My hands are very tied at this stage of the game, but I don’t feel it’s a good move, truthfully,” she said. “I was disappointed the City didn’t put more effort into it.”

The United Methodist Church on Mt. Auburn Street is home to both the Watertown Food Pantry and the Watertown Community Fridge. (Photo by Charlie Breitrose)

As for expanding the services, Cunningham said even when they were open twice a week, the vast majority of people still only came on Tuesdays.

“Originally we would open for an hour and a half on Tuesday morning and an hour and a half on Thursdays,” she said. “But believe it or not, Thursday wasn’t a big draw, it was always the Tuesday mornings.”

When the pandemic forced them to pull back services slightly, they chose Tuesdays.

Further, she added, the Food Pantry isn’t operated by the city. The operating budget comes from donations.

“I’d be happy to open the pantry up on my own as a 501(c)3. I’d do that with my eyes closed,” Cunningham said.

What’s on Offer

The volunteers set up 30 feet of fresh vegetables and fruits — usually around 10 options for vegetables and four to six different types of fruit to pick and choose from, all very seasonal. Some off-brand cereals, butter, different cuts of meat in the fridges, even laundry detergent, are all available. It could almost be a grocery store, except there’s no check-out.

As long as food donations aren’t expired or opened, the pantry will accept them.

“We always need food,” she said. “Like if I need 20 boxes of cereal, I can’t go to the store and grab 20 boxes because I’m clearing the shelf.”

After the ceiling collapsed in the church that hosts the Watertown Food Pantry, pickup was moved outside for several weeks. (Photo by Kathy Cunningham)

The community is clearly supportive. The food comes from all over: in the summer, Cunningham says they have a deal with the Gleaners, a national food bank, which delivers to them once a week; twice a week produce comes in from the Greater Boston Food Bank; they have a deal with the food rescue company Fair Foods; the Pantry also picks up items from local food stores; local Scouts and Cub Scouts collects about 6,000 pounds of food a year (twice a year during the Pandemic) for them; the youth hockey team did a fundraiser, as did the Girl Scouts. The need is actually highest not around the holidays, but from June to September, when people are out of school and on vacation.

“[Donating] is just not at the top of their list,” Cunningham said.

The money all comes from donations.

“The residents of Watertown, they’re wonderful. I can’t complain,” Cunningham said. “They sustained us constantly.”

For anyone who’s in need, who may be new to Watertown, Cunningham says the pantry will be here.

“As long as you’re in need of something, we don’t ask for any financial information,” Cunningham said. “I don’t care where you live. I don’t care who you are. You can come in and just receive whatever we have to offer.”

Next week, the series by Watertown News and WCA-TV continues with a look at how the Watertown Community Fridge keeps going, and will explore other ideas that other communities have had to tackle hunger. The series is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Watertown Community Foundation.

(Watertown News Editor Charlie Breitrose contributed to this story).


Watertown Food Pantry: 80 Mt. Auburn St. (rear of the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church), Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 617-972-6490

Watertown Catholic Collaborative Food Pantry: 770 Mt. Auburn St. (basement), Thursdays from 10 to 11:45 a.m. 617-926-7121

Watertown Community Fridge: 80 Mt. Auburn St. (Front of the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church), Open 24/7

Watertown Social Services Resource Specialists: at Wayside Multi-Service Center, 127 North Beacon St. 617-744-9585

Live Well Watertown/Watertown Farmers Market: City Hall, 149 Main St. 617-972-6446 x8

Watertown Community Foundation 617-926-1500

Food Pantry at American Legion Post 440: 295 California St., Newton, 3rd Fridays from 10 to 11 a.m. 617-244-0440

Centre Street Food Pantry: 11 Homer St., Newton, Tuesdays 2:30-6 p.m. & the first Saturday of the month from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. 617-340-9554

SNAP: (formerly Food Stamps)

Project Bread Food Source Hotline (1-800-645-8333)

One thought on “Through Pandemics & Collapsed Ceilings, the Watertown Food Pantry Stays Open

  1. As a long-time volunteer at the Watertown Food Pantry, I cannot sing the praises of our coordinator Kathleen Obrien Cunningham loud enough. Kathy is a tireless advocate for the pantry – and our clients. Over the years, it has become routine for Kathy to be called aside to help with housing issues, WIC, SNAP, and generally daily life support issues for the clients of the pantry. It is an honor and privilege to serve under Kathy at the pantry! She is an amazing resource for our City! Thank you, my friend, for all you do!

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