HUNGER TOWN HALL FOCUSES ON AMELIORATING WIDESPREAD FOOD INSECURITY IN WESTERN MASS

Photo: flckr.com

State Representatives Natalie Blais and Mindy Domb hosted an online Town Hall on Thursday July 16, entitled “Responding to Hunger in Our Community”. The aim was  to highlight the growing number of people in Western Massachusetts who are food insecure, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,  as well as a range of organizations that have mobilized to meet that need.  The session included sharing information on resources that are available to help people meet their food needs as well as information about pending legislation aimed at ameliorating food insecurity.   

The webinar was conducted via Zoom and  was attended by 50 people.  Guest speakers were Congressman Jim McGovern,  Erin McAleer, Director of Project Bread and Christina Maxwell, Director of Programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.  

All of the speakers emphasized  burgeoning food needs as a result of the pandemic as well as the daunting challenges that the pandemic has posed for offering on-site services. All offered examples of existing programs that are doing the important work of ameliorating hunger.

McGovern Emphasizes Policy
McGovern emphasized that while the need is great right now, we should not be thinking in terms of “getting back to normal.  Normal was when we had 40 million  hungry people in this country.  We need to do better than the old normal.”: he said.

McGovern summarized a number of legislative initiatives currently before Congress including The Feed Act which would empower the government to buy up surplus food that is now being destroyed by farmers because the pandemic has shut down the restaurants and other commercial outlets that might have bought that product in normal times.  The act would also provide aid to reopening restaurants for the acquisition of food surpluses.   McGovern also pointed out that our region received the second lowest USDA distributions in the country,  even though we were among the hardest hit by COVID-19  He has protested this distribution as USDA begins to consider its next round of distributions and he emphasized that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked progress on nearly all legislation that would provide COVID-19 relief.  

McGovern concluded: “We’re in a crisis.  We have the knowhow and the money but we just don’t have the political will to do what needs to be done.  No one in the USA should have to wonder whether they will be able to put food on their table and make sure that their family is fed. We need to create the political will to get people to focus on this issue.  This is a humanitarian AND a health care crisis.  People need to know where they can get relief.  And we need good policy.”

Project Bread Sponsors Programs That Make A Difference
McAleer, from  Project Bread (PB), pointed out that 17.3% of households  in Massachusetts  are projected to be food insecure during this pandemic. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.  She pointed out that there are many programs to help but it is challenging for people to navigate them.  She described three or Project Bread’s main programs.

1.  They work with community health centers to help folks navigate the many programs that are out there,.helping families figure out what they are eligible for and how to apply.  

2. Free summer meals for kids – During the pandemic PB has been coordinating  free food for children at school sites as part of their summer eats program, one of their several children’s nutrition initiatives. 

McAleer noted that when kids consistently start their school day with a nutritious meal, they have significantly fewer absences, improved grades, are 50% less likely to repeat a grade, and a 20% better chance of graduating high school.

3.Legislation and Policy.   PB has been organizing to promote policy change that would increase SNAP benefits in Massachusetts by closing the SNAP Gap. The SNAP Gap is the difference between the number of low-income Massachusetts residents receiving MassHealth who are likely SNAP eligible and the number of people actually receiving SNAP. In Massachusetts, the size of this gap is over 700,000 residents. For many years the State has administered these food and health programs separately. This means the application process and collection of documents is duplicated for both Masshealth and SNAP. This creates more work for the State and for low-income households. Most states implement a single eligibility system. It’s time to close the SNAP Gap in Massachusetts! Currently under consideration in the legislature is  An Act Improving Public Health Through a Common Application for Core Food, Health and Safety-net Programs (S.678/H.1173)  which would increase program access for SNAP-eligible individuals and families by developing a common application that allows low-income households to apply for MassHealth, SNAP, and other income based benefits including income eligible child care, housing, veterans services, fuel assistance and more.

Food Bank Meets Expanding Needs
Maxwell, from the Western Mass Food Bank asked, what does hunger look like right now in Western Mass?  And she answered,  it’s gotten worse since the start of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 10 people was food insecure.  Now it is more like 1 in 7 and for children 1 in 4.

The Food Bank is the emergency food system for Western Mass. They work, in collaboration with 170 affiliated agencies, serving a lot more food per month than before the pandemic.  She said that she fears that when emergency unemployment benefits expire, that there will be a huge influx of people coming in to pantries and food sites for help.  Among the obstacles that these agencies face is that many of the people seeking food are newly hungry and hence need more help in navigating the system. And there is still, unfortunately, stigma associated with being hungry and this often makes people reluctant to seek the help that they need. In addition, among immigrants, fear of being identified as a “public charge” may lead them to avoid using food pantries and other food services, even though using most of these services does not qualify as a public charge and are thus safe.  (Under Trump’s public charge order, immigrants to United States classified as “likely or liable to become a Public Charge” meaning dependent on Government services, may be denied visas or permission to enter the country due to their disabilities or lack of economic resources.

Maxwell reiterated the difficulties that people may encounter in navigating the myriad systems and agencies.  She reported that the Food Bank offers SNAP application assistance and that help can be reached at 413/992-6204

Community Members
The Town Hall then engaged in a round of “speed dating” introductions with several participants offering two-minute reports on the work of their organizations and the challenges in their communities.  These included  Aisha Russelll – Director of Brick House Community Resource Center in Turners Falls , Carleen Basler from the Amherst Survival Center (serving 13 surrounding towns) , Charlie Rose from the Select Board of Worthington representing local efforts following the closing of the Goshen Food Pantry during the pandemic, Judy Delong from Granby To Go , serving Granby students and their families, and Caitlin from the Hilltown Mobile Market and Amherst Mobile Market, who pointed out that the mobile markets provide surprisingly affordable produce and that most folks don’t know that most of Amherst is a food desert. 

Resource Guide
The organizers promised to compile a resource guide to all of the services and venues meeting food need Western Massachusetts.  It was not available as of this writing and we will post a link as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, here is a continually updated list of food pantries, meal sites, and mobile distributions in Western Mass

Conclusion
The Town Hall ended with a request from Domb to support the Breakfast After The Bell Act.  Massachusetts requires all high-need schools to offer breakfast before the bell to every eligible student, but participation rates are low. While 80% of students in high-need schools participate in the free or reduced National School Lunch Program, less than 40% eat school breakfast. The proposed legislation would require all public K-12 schools with 60% or more students eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the federal National School Lunch Program to offer breakfast after the instructional day begins.   Domb suggested voicing support fpr the Act to House Speaker DeLeo at  Robert.deleo@ma.house.gov.

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