Ashley Villanueva, 24, of Chelsea, was taught at an early age the importance of ensuring everyone has enough healthy, fresh food to eat. Her parents, who both immigrated to the United States from Mexico in their 20’s, ran a small food truck which sold meals to migrant workers at the nearby blueberry farms. She has fond memories of watching her mother in the kitchen preparing traditional staples, like tortillas and beans, finding joy in cooking food for others. After initially launching a career in mental health services, Villanueva’s passion for feeding her neighbors led her to join Project Bread’s Healthcare Partnerships team as a program associate to do just that, carrying on her parents’ legacy.
Recognizing that reliable access to nutritious food is integral to overall health, Project Bread, Massachusetts’ leading anti-hunger organization statewide, launched a Health Care Partnerships program in 2020 to help food insecure patients with complex diagnoses and specific dietary needs access healthy food and prepare it properly at home. Coordinators, assisted by program associates like Villanueva, provide one on one services to address barriers that individuals living on a low-income face when accessing food for health-related diets. Examples include connecting people with SNAP, providing basic kitchen equipment, arranging for transportation to shop for food, and distributing gift cards to local grocery stores. The pilot seeks to address the social determinants of health, with food insecurity and access being a major barrier for many individuals.
On a daily basis, Villanueva works behind-the-scenes to ensure the nutrition services coordinators have the tools to assist food insecure patients to access nutrition resources. She troubleshoots technical and logistical issues to ensure information systems are updated and items are available to support virtual cooking classes offered and kitchen appliances are available to patients. A former Commonwealth Corps service member for La Colaborativa, one of Project Bread’s community partners which operates a pantry feeding 7,000 to 8,000 households weekly, Villanueva saw firsthand the high need in the community. Knowing the work that she does through Project Bread is helping families access healthy, fresh food is what excites her on the job each morning.
“When I think of hunger ending, I see a human brightness,” says Villanueva. “It would be easier to navigate the world if someone doesn’t have to worry about their next meal. The community and clients we serve are resilient. Many have been in survival mode for a very long time, it’s all they know. Wouldn’t it be amazing to focus on something other than their next meal – their families, themselves, engaging more with individuals and being more present? At Project Bread, we make this possible.”
Members of the community can help Villanueva improve access to nutrition resources across the Commonwealth by joining her on Sunday, May 7, for Project Bread’s 55th annual Walk for Hunger. Back in person for the first time since 2019, more than 3,000 Massachusetts residents will gather on the Boston Common and hundreds of others will participate remotely for the one-day fundraising event to raise more than $1 million to ensure Massachusetts residents of all ages across the state have enough to eat. New this year, there will be several family-friendly activations along the Boston Common three-mile route to raise awareness for food insecurity, nutrition resources available and other ways to get involved through the nonprofit to help neighbors in need.
“Good health is impossible if you don’t have enough to eat but food is just one of many barriers people face, from having a working refrigerator and basic pots and pans, to transportation, and nutrition support,” says Sarah Cluggish, Chief Programs Officer of Project Bread. “Ashley has helped keep our program running smoothly so we can get critical food resources to our clients and ensure they are able to meet their own and their families’ needs. It’s this commitment to our clients and ending hunger statewide that brings our team, as well as the Massachusetts community, together each year.”
To register for Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger, or to support a walker or team, visit projectbread.org/walk or call (617) 723-5000. There is no registration fee or fundraising minimum to participate, although a $250 minimum goal is suggested. Participants who raise $500 or more are recognized as Heart & Sole walkers and receive access to personalized fundraising support, exclusive event gear, and invitations to events.
Project Bread, the leading statewide anti-hunger nonprofit, connects people and communities in Massachusetts to reliable sources of food, while advocating for policies that make food more accessible—so that no one goes hungry. For more information, visit: www.projectbread.org.