Erin McAleer was working 24/7.
It was March and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker had advised people in his state to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As president of Project Bread, McAleer was trying to find creative ways to keep children fed as schools closed across the commonwealth. According to her Boston-based nonprofit, which works to address food shortages, 400,000 kids in Massachusetts rely on school meals to stave off hunger.
“I realized that this public health challenge was unique,” recalls McAleer, who graduated from the Boston College School of Social Work in 2005. “The models of feeding people in the past wouldn’t be safe during a pandemic.”
After careful planning, Project Bread partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and school districts across the state to create 1,600 pop-up meal sites. During the first four months of the pandemic, the nonprofit served 260,000 meals per day.
McAleer says Project Bread purchased to-go bags, refrigerators, and tents to ensure the operation ran smoothly.
“We’ve been working around the clock since March,” she says. “There’s always a hunger crisis, but COVID-19 has made it worse.”
Earlier this month, Boston Globe Magazine named McAleer one of its Bostonians of the Year for keeping people fed in unprecedented times. She joined scientists, social justice advocates, essential workers, and community leaders who, the Globe said, have “stood up to fight the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice.”
“Erin McAleer’s impact through enduring partnerships with a network of social service providers and communities inspires us,” says Gautam N. Yadama, dean of the Boston College School of Social Work. “It is an example for us in the school on ways to draw on the foundations of social work practice to advance the common good.”
Prior to the pandemic, 9 percent of households in Massachusetts did not get enough to eat. But record rates of unemployment and lost wages caused by the closing of businesses have increased that number to 17.8 percent.
“Low-income kids get half their meals from school,” says McAleer. “When they closed, that created a huge gap.”
In August, Project Bread helped get a bill passed to make breakfast part of the school day for 150,000 students in Massachusetts. The “Breakfast After the Bell” bill will require about 600 schools to offer breakfast during the day—just like lunch.
McAleer says that children who eat breakfast score higher on tests and visit the school nurse less than peers who skip the meal. She says they’re more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be absent.
“If you’re hungry, it's hard to focus,” she says. “Hunger is one of the biggest distractions there is.”
Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline helps people fight hunger, directing people to food pantries and programs like Meals on Wheels. Over the past several months, four times more people than usual have called the hotline to get the food they need.
The hotline can field questions in 180 languages, including English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and the operators connect people to programs confidentially.
“No matter what you’re going through, we understand that food is a must,” the website for the hotline says. “We want to help you.”
“We’ve been working around the clock since March. There’s always a hunger crisis, but COVID-19 has made it worse.”
McAleer knows what it’s like to grow up in a family that struggles to put food on the table. She and her two brothers lived with their mom, a part-time real estate agent who worried about making ends meet.
McAleer remembers eating cereal and frozen pies. She remembers her mom begging banks to wait to cash their checks. But most of all, McAleer remembers the uncertainty spread across her mom’s face. She had bills to pay, a mortgage. How would she feed her kids?
“What we ate impacted me,” says McAleer, who grew up in West Peabody, Massachusetts. “But more than the food, it was the stress, and my mother was really stressed out.”
Over time, life improved. The family moved to Ipswich, a coastal town with a good school system, McAleer’s mom got a master’s degree in social work, and McAleer discovered her calling.
Her mom told her the story of Frances Perkins, a social worker who helped write the New Deal in the 1930s. As secretary of labor, Perkins created the first minimum wage, defined the 40-hour work week, and established overtime laws for American workers.
“You want to craft policy solutions?” her mom asked.
“Yes,” McAleer said.
“Frances Perkins was a social worker,” her mom said.
And that was that.
McAleer received a bachelor’s degree in history from Holy Cross in 2002 and enrolled at BC in 2003. She says she chose BC for its program in macro social work, which prepares students to help communities solve complex problems.
“The No. 1 thing that social work school taught me is that it’s about justice, not charity,” says McAleer, who received the Distinguished Recent Alumni Award from the School of Social Work in 2014. “It’s not about you’re hungry, so here’s some food. It’s more about why are you hungry? What are the systemic causes of this?”
McAleer interned for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Association of Social Workers. She testified before the state legislature for NAMI, asking for more funding. “I got my first taste of advocacy work,” she recalls. “I learned how to organize and bring people together.”
At NASW, she helped set the legislative agenda, which included affordable housing, voting rights, and immigration reform, and helped elect politicians who supported legislation that aligned with the goals of social workers. “That was a huge learning experience,” she recalls. “You can’t pass policies if you don’t have elected officials who are endorsing them.”
McAleer says her internships in health and public policy shaped her career path. And she says her jobs that led her to Project Bread in 2017 have prepared her to make critical decisions under pressure during the pandemic.
In February 2014, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick asked her to overhaul the state’s Department of Children and Families. Five months later, he asked her to find ways for the state to host children who had crossed the U.S. border illegally.
As director of cabinet affairs, McAleer told Patrick that a lot of people would not like this, that he would not score political points. But she knew it was the right thing to do and started coordinating plans with state agencies.
“He put me in charge because I’m a social worker,” says McAleer. “He knew that I would make sure these kids had a place that would welcome them.”
In the end, the federal government chose not to bring kids to Massachusetts. But politics proved to be a training ground for McAleer’s work at Project Bread.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for people who have trusted me to take on big responsibilities,” she says. “I've been given opportunities to lead.”
Now she’s received a major honor for her work as a leader. Now she’s a Bostonian of the Year.