Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Erin McAleer of Project Bread Is Helping To Change Our World

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Some things just take time. Especially when cultivating relationships, not all efforts will immediately bear fruit. There are first time donors now with whom I have been developing a relationship since I first start started four years ago. When you’re in this work for the long haul, one of your best assets can simply be the time you have to progress your goals and work strategically.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin McAleer.

Erin McAleer is the CEO of Project Bread, the leading statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts. Beginning in 1969 with the first Walk for Hunger, the oldest community pledge walk in the nation, the nonprofit focuses on driving systemic change by engaging residents, elected officials, and businesses to act against hunger so everyone in the Commonwealth has reliable access to healthy food. For more information, visit:

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My own experience with food insecurity as a child keeps me grounded in our work and mission at Project Bread. When I was about five years old, I remember my mom being consumed by stress — working multiple jobs to feed her kids and pay the mortgage. I understood that something was broken somewhere and wanted to fix it. That is a big part of me deciding to be a social worker.

I understand the larger implications hunger can have on an individual and a family and the fact that hunger exists is not any individual failure but a systemic one. While I was at College of the Holy Cross, I realized early on that policy was the way to create the biggest changes. I have had the opportunity to serve in several senior roles as a member of Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, including serving as Director of Cabinet Affairs, Legislative Director for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and interim Chief of Staff at the Department of Transitional Assistance. I also served as Senior Associate and Government Affairs Consultant at Charles Group Consulting, was a Fiscal Policy Analyst in the Executive Office of Administration & Finance, and Research Analyst for State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

In all that I do, I aim to bring awareness economic disparities that perpetuate poverty and hunger, and a resolve to correct them. It is my belief in the dignity of every human being that underlies my efforts, and it is this belief that compels me to act with integrity to the best of my abilities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Every day is really interesting to me. I know I am fortunate in that. One thing which I know will always stay with me is the impact the pandemic had on our team and the unwavering resilience and dedication amidst uncertainty everywhere around us. The state shutdown and seemingly overnight, there was a jump in the number of people living without enough to eat. Need was unlike anything we’ve seen and the team just got to work. The world was in a state of chaos but at Project Bread there wasn’t a lot of panic. Instead, it was as though the crisis brought with it a hyper focus. Everyone seemed to understand the responsibility we had and still have, to respond to the crisis. It was an incredible experience to see a group of people come together, with no ego, no complaining, truly driven by the mission. Doing whatever needed to be done together. We stopped fundraising so people on the fundraising team could answer and triage calls to our FoodSource Hotline. Our team working on child nutrition helped entire school districts pivot their food service literally overnight so no kids would have to go without enough to eat. Looking back, what strikes me is the realization that I don’t think it ever occurred to the team that it might be hard to rise to the occasion. That mindset extended beyond the first few weeks too. Our team actually stood up an entirely new program months ahead of schedule because of the even greater urgency the crisis brought to helping patients of community health centers access and afford food at a time when the barriers were more significant and numerous than ever. I’m so proud to have experienced it and will be forever inspired by the team stepping up and still doing this work more than a year and a half into the worst crisis in our lifetime.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One important lesson is to be able to laugh at yourself and roll with unexpected mistakes! I joined months before Project Bread celebrated our 50th Walk for Hunger. In honor of this milestone year, we wanted to recognize the leadership of Congressman Jim McGovern, who is the national voice on hunger. When the day came, there I was, on stage on the Boston Common, in front of media, our walkers, elected officials and it was the first time I was representing Project Bread at a big public event. I had notes for my remarks and was feeling prepared and excited. I saved the award for last and the Congressman was up on stage to my left. I spoke about his incredible work and turned to get his award to hand off, only to realize the physical award wasn’t there. It had gotten lost in the chaos of putting on an event for thousands of people. There was definitely an awkward and noticeable beat where I probably had a shocked look on my face. I ended up fumbling through sort of miming passing off an award. Whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t a smooth cover-up. He was gracious and so relaxed — he had a big smile on his face totally unphased. I try to remember his reaction when things don’t go exactly as planned. I think I’ve gotten better at staying calm and remembering to laugh at myself too.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We have been working to end hunger in Massachusetts for over 50 years and that experience informs our approach. We know effective solutions put people –not food at the center. Food is a critical resource but it can only provide a temporary fix. Project Bread really works to get at the root of the problems as we work on a paradigm where we try to meet people where they are and listen and learn from them so we can be as effective as possible in our policy and advocacy work. Project Bread has ensured that hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people across the Commonwealth have more access to food. One of the ways we do this is through our Food Source Hotline, which is a free, confidential resource that anyone in Massachusetts can call into. Our counselors are trained to connect callers with programs like SNAP which provides families funds for food and information about P-EBT and more. Between October 2019 and September 2020, we helped more than 45,700 callers access resources!

Additionally, our programs have reached across policy initiatives and direct support to coordinate access to high impact food assistance solutions, statewide. This includes:

  • Partnering with state legislators and the MA Congressional delegation to successfully lobby for the passage of the Act to Promote Student Nutrition, ensuring that up to ten thousand more students will have access to the school nutrition they need and helping to address many of the root causes and adverse impacts of unpaid school meal debt.
  • Filing legislation and launching a campaign for School Meals for All in Massachusetts. When passed, Massachusetts could be the third state in the nation to permanently guarantee all school children have access to healthy breakfast and lunch at no charge.
  • Participating on the Massachusetts Task Force on Coronavirus and Equity, pushing for policies aimed at equitable COVID-19 recovery and testifying as an invited guest on the state legislature’s Equitable Reopening panel.
  • Launching a statewide awareness campaign promoting SNAP and our FoodSource Hotline as a resource, reaching over 50 million residents since the start of the pandemic
  • Providing $465,548 in grants for free meal sites between October 2020 and May 2021.
  • Launching Healthcare Partnerships with MassHealth to provide proactive food security case management to over 3000 patients with complex medical issues from 14 community health centers.
  • Empowering 1,500 people to raise $1.7 million for rapid response hunger relief work statewide through Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger in May 2021.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Earlier this year, we had a caller to our FoodSource Hotline. She is a single mother with one child in college and another in high school. As a waitress, she had only been getting part-time hours due to COVID and lower customer numbers, but that meant she was struggling to keep up with rent, utilities, and college tuition (even with financial aid and a payment plan). When she called the FoodSource Hotline, we were able to walk her through completing a SNAP application over the phone and request a new P-EBT card since she had lost the first one for her younger child and had not realized the benefits were still ongoing at the time. She shared with our Hotline counselors, “Thank you so much for taking the time to go through all of this with me. You made it so easy, and I don’t think I would have moved forward with either thing without your help.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I can narrow this down to two things. One, employers need to pay a living wage, so people don’t go hungry in the first place. With a stagnant nationwide minimum wage, inflation rising this year with supply chain shortages, and many people still experiencing and recovering from the effects of COVID, low wages lead to the most difficult choices: pay my heating bill or get groceries for my family. That shouldn’t have to be a question. The second thing we can do as a society and through our politicians is ensure that affording food is never something people have to worry about through our federal nutrition programs. With Universal School Meals, children can receive both breakfast and lunch, and in some cases an after-school snack, provided the school. This frees up caregivers’ food expenses for their families by giving them a reliable source of nutritious food each day. We can also make SNAP more accessible. Over 670,000 Massachusetts residents are estimated to be eligible for SNAP but not enrolled. We’re working with legislators to promote a Common Application for SNAP with other critical services, as well as pushing to make the Healthy Incentives Program permanent, allowing SNAP recipients to be reimbursed for fresh produce purchased at from local farmers. These initiatives and more will change the landscape of how people afford and access food.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about setting the strategy, being the visionary for your team and establishing the group focus. However, leadership is also about know how to build up and develop a strong team who can execute and achieve. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit our area, unemployment rose dramatically, schools where many children received their only meals of the day had to close down, and food insecurity jumped to an all-time high. Our FoodSource Hotline was overwhelmed, but at the same time, all of our resources were stretched at once. I had to prioritize what we focused on, and that meant calling the full team in to all help out answering questions on P-EBT, school meals, and more. This was a mission critical moment where I had to shift our resources to where they were most needed and impactful, and I had a team who was ready to put in the work and do it skillfully.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You can’t fix everything at the same time. You need to learn how to prioritize. When I first started at Project Bread, I had to make a conscious decision to direct my focus on strengthening the board and leadership team and setting out on a strategic plan. There were so many important things looking to pull my attention, but I couldn’t do it all. I had to find somewhere to start and build from there.
  2. Hire good people. This absolutely needs to be a priority. I am able to do my best job, when I have a team supporting me, when I feel confident that I have experts in their fields handling the day-to-day business and advising me on what the company needs. It may be time consuming to go through the hiring process, but the right people will more than make up that time in the long run.
  3. The idea that it’s lonely at the top is real. It’s important to have outside peers who you can speak with for advice and insights because nobody at your company is in the same position as you, or will have to make the same decisions. I have appreciated being able to lean on my outside peers for resources in some of those more difficult times.
  4. Address performance challenges early. I’m normally an optimist but things don’t always get better unless you take action. I am committed to investing in my team, and sometimes, there need to be some hard conversations to get that team to be performing at their best.
  5. Some things just take time. Especially when cultivating relationships, not all efforts will immediately bear fruit. There are first time donors now with whom I have been developing a relationship since I first start started four years ago. When you’re in this work for the long haul, one of your best assets can simply be the time you have to progress your goals and work strategically.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to inspire society to recognize that hunger is solved through community mobilization and political action, not charity. Every $1 of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits generates $1.70, which supports local communities and creates jobs. However, as of July 2021, 41.3% of those likely eligible for SNAP were not enrolled. Those 677,076 people may be relying on food banks and pantries and community food drives (who are doing their own fantastic work in local neighborhoods), but in order for change to be sustainable, it has to be systemic. We have to recognize the structural disadvantages that people of color face disproportionately more than white people, and we have to take action through our elected officials and standing policies in order to fully solve hunger for all people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote that I look to is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Growing up food insecure, I had to learn how to be resilient, tenacious, and keep moving forward. What’s driven me to where I am today is my hope, and more than that, my knowledge that we can end hunger. There are solutions that are scalable and can be made accessible to all who need them. There are solutions that go beyond just donating food, but rather, making sure we meet a person’s whole need, whether that’s kitchen supplies, transportation assistance, medically-tailored nutrition counseling, and more. My enthusiasm for this work on both a personal and professional level has led me to push our Policy department to take bold stances and present a clear legislative agenda. We believe in taking down the barriers to SNAP and other federal nutrition programs, providing universal school meals to students, and dismantling harmful stereotypes about those seeking help.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to share a meal with former First Lady Michelle Obama! She is an inspirational leader, and her passion for improving school meals and providing children with proper nutrition has been so meaningful to my own work at Project Bread. I believe in healthy, nutritious, AND delicious school meals available at no cost for all students, and her initiatives as First Lady has helped make great strides in this field.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter (@ErinMcAleer1) and LinkedIn (

You can also find Project Bread on social media: Facebook (@projectbread); Twitter (@projectbread); Instagram (@projectbread) For more information, visit:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you very much!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Erin McAleer of Project Bread Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.