By Grace Mayer
FRAMINGHAM – Food insecurity, the uncertainty of where one’s next meal may come from, can often go unnoticed.
But for years now, David Blais, the founder of the nonprofit Daniel’s Table, has envisioned mapping out food insecurity in Framingham, so that it can’t go unnoticed.
The nonprofit’s recently launched OneCiti campaign, a data collection project that tracks food insecurity in Framingham, may be the key to solving hunger, Blais said.
“This is the only way to a solution,” Blais said. “If you don’t know what’s happening behind the door of someone’s apartment, there’s no way you can help them.”
Just in 2019, 10.5% of U.S. homes experienced food insecurity, working out to 13.7 million homes, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But during the pandemic, food insecurity rose among individuals in 2020.
As Framingham continues to emerge from the pandemic, moratoriums on rents are lifted and stimulus checks are spent, the need to stretch one’s dollar to cover the cost of groceries is likely to grow, Blais said.
“I think we’re in for a much bigger wave of people in need than we’re truly anticipating or planning for,” Blais said.
The OneCiti campaign launched June 4, beginning a data collection project to map out food insecurity across Framingham that Blais expects will take up to 9 months to complete.
Nearing two months into the campaign, Blais said they’ve gotten responses from 7% of homes in Framingham.
But with over 28,000 homes in Framingham, Blais said the nonprofit will need all hands on deck.
“We’re trying to get as many people in the community involved as possible,” Blais said. “This is a big project, but with a lot of hands, we can make it a lot easier on everybody.”
The campaign revolves around one question: Do you have challenges providing healthy food for your family OR are you feeling lonely or isolated?
By going to OnceCiti’s website, Framingham residents can find instructions on how to download the campaign app or call numbers listed at the bottom of the page to respond to this question.
Respondents can then answer whether they struggle with supplying food or need emergency aid.
For those who say they are feeling lonely or isolated, Blais said the campaign will connect people to mental health resources.
“At the end of this campaign, we can type in any address in Framingham and know what’s happening within that home,” Blais said. “Are they okay, or are they in need of food, or are they feeling lonely or isolated.”
With each answer collected, software records the responses on a map of the City of Framingham, highlighting areas in green, yellow, and red—marking homes that are safe or most threatened by food insecurity. Once responses are recorded, OneCiti’s call center will respond to those who answered that they struggled with supplying food.
When the campaign nears the end of its data collection, Blais said volunteers will go door-to-door to those who haven’t responded to the question to get an answer.
But even after the campaign wraps up, the nonprofit will need to acquire updated data in the future.
Blais said he hopes that property owners and landlords will offer the OneCiti campaign question service as part of a package of resources when people move in.
“We have an idea that there’s hunger in Framingham, but unless you know who the people are, you’re kind of just hoping you’re fixing a problem,” Blais said.
Before Blais and his wife, Alicia Blais, launched Daniel’s Table in 2012, named after Blais’ son who died at birth—a motivator to Blais and Alicia to stay focused on their cause—they owned and operated a restaurant.
After running Foodie Café Catering for a few years, Blais said he noticed a need within the community for food aid. So the Blaises started to dedicate their Saturdays to making 50 sandwiches to feed the homeless population.
Nine years later, what started as a small project, expanded into a food truck that traveled around Framingham serving meals, and eventually, the nonprofit Daniel’s Table.
Each week, the nonprofit extends a helping hand armed with homemade meals to upwards of 750 families a week, Blais said.
Sandra Montesino joined Blais and Alicia as an employee at the Foodie Café. After working in real estate for 25 years, Montesino said she was on the hunt for a part time job when she stumbled upon the café. As Blais’s mission to end food insecurity in Framingham grew, so did the nonprofit—and Montesino was on board.
“David from the get go was just such a visionary, and I knew that there were some exciting things that were coming, and I knew that he would eventually solve the hunger problem here in Framingham,” Montesino said.
Since then Montesino has hung up her apron and settled into several business roles at Daniel’s Table. She juggles donations, volunteers, advertisements—a “Jane of All Trades,” as Montesino likes to say.
With the launch of the OneCiti campaign, Montesino has helped distribute flyers and banners, and rally up volunteers to hang door knockers around the city and answer phones at the call center.
With the OneCiti mapping technology, she said the nonprofit will be able to see hotspots of food insecurity in Framingham and direct their resources to these communities.
Although the operation has grown, employees and donors have come and gone, Montesino and the Blaises have all remained motivated by the mission.
For Blais, the pit in one’s stomach of wondering where one’s next meal might come from, is a familiar feeling.
As a kid, he grew up with the looming threat of food insecurity in his home—an experience he said that has helped him to better understand how to find solutions to food insecurity.
“I don’t want this feeling for any child in Framingham,” Blais said.
As a kid, the feeling for Blais was the knowledge that when he came home for dinner at night, he and his family would ration out hard boiled eggs. It was having salad, dressed with tomatoes and oil from a tuna can, for lunch.
Blais said his first-hand experience growing up with food insecurity is what motivates him to ensure no child has to go through what he did.
Although Daniel’s Table is now capable of serving thousands of meals, has expanded into creating frozen microwavable options, and set up affordable farmer’s markets,
Blais said there’s not much time to celebrate the nonprofit’s growth, he’s always thinking about the next possible family or child who could be helped.
With the OneCiti Campaign, Blais said they’ll be that much closer to ensuring no child goes hungry in Framingham.
“With information on everybody in the city, now you can really take a look at what is the real problem here, be able to address it, and solve it,” Blais said. “But without that first step, without really knowing who needs help, there’s no way that you can solve anything.”
Grace Mayer is a 2021 summer SOURCE intern, and a student at Boston College.