Partner Spotlight: Healthy Waltham

Fennel packed in a box for distribution. Maria meeting with Gaining Ground staff under a tent with food set out for pick-up.

This month we paused to catch up with our recipient partner Healthy Waltham, which promotes collaborative approaches to improving the health and wellness of under-resourced populations in Waltham. They do this through programs that increase access to healthy foods, provide nutrition education, and create opportunities for physical activity. 

We spoke with Operations Director Maria DiMaggio about the organization’s mission, programming, and what they’re getting up to this busy season.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Maria. Could you give us an overview of the mission and work of Healthy Waltham? 

It was founded as a small community group in 2004 with the mission to focus on improving health and wellness in the city of Waltham. From the start, we’ve always been very community-focused: Food pantries weren’t originally the core of what we were doing, but when the community’s needs change, so does our focus. We shift, look at what the health and wellness needs of the city are at that moment in time, and find ways to address them. 

Over the years, the things we’ve done have varied. We have focused on schools and education in schools, nutrition, getting kids to try different foods, school gardens, promoting fruits and vegetables, walking programs, cooking programs in different languages, and a senior citizen coalition that we’re very involved in. 

Because our mission is to promote health and wellness, the form our programming takes has always evolved. With the pandemic, when we saw food insecurity was such a growing issue, we felt we really needed to put more resources toward that. 

Image of the staff of Healthy Waltham

Tell us a bit about where and how you distribute your meals and how the work you do fits in the overall work and mission of Healthy Waltham?

We offer a food pantry twice per month, which we’ve just relocated to Government Center in Waltham. The volume of people we serve is pretty high. Higher than before the pandemic. At each pantry we have two different lines—one for walk-ups and another for drive-ups—and we use 40 to 50 volunteers at each pantry to distribute around 60,000 pounds of food. 

We’ve been serving about 1,000 households per pantry. This is inclusive of people who come in-person to the pantry, which has been around 700 households. And we’ve been doing more and more work with partner organizations to deliver out in the community. That’s another 200 to 300 households.

Because of the pandemic, our food pantries stayed outdoors all last winter. We’ve remained outside this year and are planning to continue that way. It was challenging last winter, but it could have been worse, and for the most part things went well. 

We have hundreds of people who volunteer with us, and they’ve been outstanding. We’re a pretty small group—our staff is four people, all part-time—and we would never be able to do this without a lot of assistance. 

What are some foods and ingredients that are particularly popular or needed by your clients? 

Our pantry really serves a lot of families, and they do a lot of home cooking, so people at our pantry gravitate to the fresh foods. There is always a big demand for them and Gaining Ground has been a great addition to that. 

I was just noticing yesterday how much people really like some of the foods that are not the usual things you would get at a food pantry. They really enjoy some of those specialty items from Gaining Ground that are so wonderful. Yesterday we had a bag of leeks and everyone was like, Ah, that’s what I want. There were these nice little cabbages and the lettuce was just beautiful—it’s hard to compare that to packaged lettuce. People went right for those. The leeks, the fennel, the herbs from Gaining Ground, those are things food pantries don’t normally get. And those little mini peppers, those were awesome.

The quality and variety of the produce is really wonderful. The items from Gaining Ground are perishable and have to be really fresh, so we don’t get them from other sources. 

It’s nice, as we have more choice, to be able to offer a wider variety of foods. Some of what you think of as food pantry foods are easier for us to get: Apples, potatoes, onions. But people like a little bit of everything and it’s really nice to be able to give them more choices. 

Image of boxes of produce and bags of leeks for distribution

How has the pandemic affected your work, meals, clients and how you get food to the folks you serve?

We’ve learned a lot over the last year-and-a-half. Prior to the pandemic we were partnering with the Waltham Public Schools to do mobile, school-based pantry programs with food that was entirely from the Greater Boston Food Bank. At the school-based pantry, we were serving around 400 families. 

We were also doing in-person educational programming before the pandemic. But once COVID hit, everything shut down. The schools and other agencies we worked with closed, so we couldn’t do our pantries or our other programming. 

We pivoted to focus on what we felt were ways we could contribute and where we saw a huge need. A lot of the other pantries closed or limited food because things happened so quickly. Some groups didn’t have an outdoor space and they wanted to make sure volunteers and clients were safe. So we changed to this completely mobile, outdoor pantry to make sure we continued to serve people—and serve more people. 

Right now, the need fluctuates but it has increased. It hasn’t gone back down to pre-pandemic levels. COVID exposed a lot of the inequities and problems that already existed and that people just maybe weren’t paying attention to before. Food insecurity was always there. And the pandemic made it even more apparent that there were needs in Waltham that weren’t being fully met in other ways. I think that’s going to continue, so I don’t see Healthy Waltham’s work changing. I think the pantry will continue to change and evolve, but if there is food insecurity in Waltham, we can help fight it. I think we’re in it now for the long haul. 

Thank you so much for all that you do to help folks get enough food to eat, Maria and the whole Healthy Waltham Team. We’re grateful for the important work you do and are thrilled to be partnering with you to bring fresh, organic produce from Gaining Ground to folks in the Waltham community who need it.