Warriors in the fight against hunger

Douglas Flores and Greg Perez may have only moved to the North Shore last year, but they are already making an impact.

The Swampscott couple both work to address food insecurity locally and throughout Massachusetts, with Flores serving as chief operations officer for Project Bread and Perez as reverend at St. Stephen’s Memorial Episcopal Church in Lynn.

“Greg deals with the immediacy of things. He’s taking care of people here and today and tomorrow — but Project Bread and most of my work — has been looking at systems change and environmental change,” Flores said. “People need food and they need it today. They can’t wait for the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to take effect. But we want to give them a solution that is sustainable and one that provides dignity.”

Texas natives Flores and Perez started in their positions during the pandemic, launching directly into dealing with widespread hunger exacerbated by the pandemic on top of the struggle of remote work.

Before his position at Project Bread, Flores worked for over a decade at GLSEN, a nonprofit that focuses on education and awareness for LGBTQ+ students. When Perez’s career brought them to the Northeast, he looked to his experience growing up in a family that frequently relied on food stamps and other governmental assistance programs to eat.

“I just took a step back and wanted to think, what are the other mission areas that I wanted to focus on?” he said. “There’s a lot of structures I’m able to build (at Project Bread). I think I can really contribute to HR, the people work, the diversity, equity and inclusion work that’s so critical to reach these communities.”

Meanwhile, Perez had to acclimate to a new church and a new congregation without ever meeting them in person. He said that one of his favorite parts of the job is the regular food pantry events that the church holds, where they bring in up to 11,000 pounds of food each month from the Greater Boston Food Bank, My Brother’s Table and Lovin’ Spoonfuls.  In January, during the peak of the pandemic, they served 2,571 individuals from 683 households. 

“We have kept going because we know that people are hungry,” Perez said, noting that the vast majority of community members they serve are immigrants from Latin America. “People are out of work and resources are limited.”

Flores said that this trend is in line with the rest of the state. He said that across municipalities, there has been a 5 to 20 percent increase in households who have signed up for SNAP. Before the pandemic, one in 11 families was experiencing food insecurity; that number has gone up to one in six, and among Black and Latino families, one in three.

“It’s really just magnifying some of the fractures in the disparities,” he said. “It’s been really impactful on the most vulnerable populations.”

Flores and Perez are optimistic about the future, as both Project Bread and St. Stephen’s start opening up their operation, but both men are both committed to continuing the hard work they have done over the past year.

“When you see these people coming by, you become their friend, you strike up a conversation and you just see the need on their faces,” Perez said. “Their gratitude is written all over their face.”

The St. Stephen’s food pantry is open from 2 to 4 p.m. on the second, third, fourth and fifth Friday of every month. For more information about how to get help, call the Project Bread FoodSource hotline at 1-800-645-8333.