Food for Free workers manage deliveries at the nonprofit’s Inman Street base. (Photo: Amanda Macchia Photography | @amadamacchiaphot)

Food for Free, the volunteer agency delivering free food to Cambridge residents in need during the pandemic, needs to flatten its own curve after surging from serving 160 households every two weeks before the crisis to more than 1,900 every week as of last week, executive director Sasha Purpura said Monday. The organization is trying to steer some potential and current recipients to other sources of free groceries, if they can safely leave their homes, she said.

This week, Food for Free began including a $30 gift card to Market Basket in food bags delivered to people who live within 1.5 miles of the Somerville supermarket. A note says they will continue to get the card but no more deliveries, unless they can’t leave home to get to the store. Food for Free, based on Inman Street near City Hall and Central Square, also sent messages last week to agencies such as the Cambridge Housing Authority that are signing up food delivery recipients, asking them to verify that the families who live less than about a mile from one of the city’s three operating food pantries can’t leave their homes to travel there.

Food for Free isn’t taking these measures with residents of senior housing or anyone else whom the organization knows is elderly, and will continue delivering food to anyone who can’t leave home because of illness, Covid-19 infection or disability, Purpura said.

Despite the more than 1,000 percent leap in households, the problem isn’t food shortages – Food for Free gets plenty from the Greater Boston Food Bank, she said. But with the stress on staff and volunteers, the growth rate is not sustainable.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the point where delivering to thousands of households becomes too much,” Purpura said. The goal is to make sure that “those who truly can’t leave their homes don’t get shut out.”

Able partners

Operators of the food pantries – East End House at 105 Spring St., East Cambridge; Margaret Fuller House at 71 Cherry St., The Port; and the Cambridge Community Center at 5 Callender St., Riverside – have assured Food for Free that they can serve more people, she said. The pantries’ hours and days of operation are limited.

Food For Free’s deliveries involve bringing 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of food to the city’s Senior Center in Central Square, where volunteers make up individual bags and deliver them all over the city. Food For Free also oversees volunteers for the city’s school meal program, and it brings “rescued food” from groceries and Amazon Fresh to Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville and seven other communities.

The city and the anti-poverty agency Cambridge Equal Opportunity Committee are funding the grocery gift cards, Purpura said. The cards went to 400 households; people can continue to get deliveries by calling the city’s food hotline and explaining their situation, she said.

New need to “triage”

The message to agencies signing up new delivery recipients asked workers to “triage” them: “Before you add someone to the list, please explain that we welcome anyone that does not have other options. But we won’t be able to do that if people who have other options get on our list. Identify if they are within a mile or so of one of the food pantries below. If so, please ask them to utilize that resource instead. If they cannot – covid-positive, senior, disabled – please go ahead and add them to the list.”

One agency, the Cambridge Housing Authority, told managers that the intake for food deliveries needed to be changed in line with the message. “We will need to discuss how we communicate this to the sites and get information about the food pantry to folks who are able to access assistance at the food pantry,” deputy executive director Brenda Dowling wrote.

The city’s Community Food Line, the service provided by Food for Free, was set up last month to provide deliveries to replace food pantries that closed at first because of the pandemic; the three pantries named by Food for Free are open. The city’s website says people are eligible for food deliveries if their pantry or meal program is closed; they lost income and can’t afford groceries; they are homebound and have no one to bring them food; or they are at “high risk for Covid-19 and do not have access to a regular food source.”

Food for Free began in 1981 as a group of friends bringing food that was about to be discarded to meal programs in Cambridge. It was incorporated in 1983.

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