Erin McAleer Combines Passion and Policy in the Fight to End Hunger
A lifelong awareness of food insecurity, starting at age five, coupled with a keen interest in the power of social policy to effect positive change led Erin McAleer to become CEO of Project Bread, the only statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts that is leading the state’s COVID-19 hunger relief work.
This is her story.
My own understanding of food insecurity began at the age of five when my mom, facing abuse, made the difficult decision to get a divorce and become a single parent to three children. She was consumed by the stress of how to keep her home and feed her kids because the math simply didn’t add up. Bills went unpaid, and pancakes became a common dinner.
Now that I have my own children, I often think about my mom and the many parents like her who stress over meeting the most basic of human needs—food— for themselves and their kids. In a nation and state with an abundance of wealth and resources, I find it simply unacceptable.
I have long been passionate about the power of policy change, and during my undergraduate college experience, I pursued summer internships in the early 2000s for then U.S. Senator John Kerry and Massachusetts State Senator Michael Knapik. I was interested in a career that could merge my passion for social justice with my understanding of the impact of policy change. At the recommendation of the person I admired most—my mom, who had herself gone back to earn her BA and a master’s degree in social work—I pursued a master’s in social work, with a concentration in community organizing and public policy.
In developing my career, I served in several roles in and around state government over the course of a decade, giving me a deep understanding of policy change and the important role of advocacy: as research analyst in the legislature, a fiscal policy analyst, legislative director, and chief of staff in the executive branch, as an advocate, and then as director of cabinet affairs for then Gov. Deval Patrick. In these roles, I gained an understanding of the inner workings of policy change, the importance of building a movement and coalition, and how to negotiate and pitch your case.
I carried these skills with me when I left state government, after Gov. Patrick’s term ended in 2015, determined to work for a nonprofit organization that was leading on systemic solutions.
I was thrilled when the board of Project Bread asked me to become president in 2017, as it enabled me to commit to a cause in which I am personally invested and that I know will be solved only through policy change.
While it was a big change to move from government work into the nonprofit space, I have been able to flex my passion for policy work as Project Bread leads research and lobbying for anti-hunger bills on a state and eventually national level. I have an incredible team supporting me in the day-to-day, leaving me to focus on strategic planning, management, and of course, fundraising.
Over the past 21 months, Project Bread has been working alongside many incredible partners in Massachusetts to address the hunger crisis that was exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19. I am so proud of my team, who took an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensuring people across our state could immediately access food resources, supporting school and community meal sites, and running Massachusetts’ only statewide hotline that connects residents with a range of food resources, from SNAP benefits to information on food pantry hours and locations.
As a leader, I recognize that Project Bread can only have impact when all parts of our organization work together. We need direct service staff helping people today to access food; we need to listen and learn from those experiencing food insecurity, as well as the communities facing the greatest inequities in food access, to ensure solutions work for all; we need research and data to make the case for policy change; and we need big, bold, and permanent policy solutions, like universal free schools meals, that can help end hunger.
Leadership, first and foremost, is about setting the strategy and ensuring everyone on the team understands their unique and important role, and then ensuring that the organization is strong financially and operationally.
As importantly, we must listen, learn, and collaborate to ensure we are effective in our programmatic and policy work. Throughout my time at the nonprofit, I have been reminded that the heart of the mission starts with the team that so passionately and unwaveringly does the work. For me—and my team— fighting food insecurity is personal.