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Andrew Morehouse: ‘New normal’ of food insecurity

Or where their next meal will come from.

This year, right here in the four counties of western Massachusetts, more than 135,000 residents relied on the emergency food network — made up of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and 300 local feeding programs — for a bag of groceries or a hot meal. That’s one in eight of us.

Can you imagine your mother or grandmother being one of the thousands of elders who rely on meals served at their local Council on Aging and a bag of groceries from the Food Bank to supplement their modest Social Security check? Or how would it feel knowing your child or grandchild is one of the tens of thousands of local kids who depend on a patchwork of food assistance after the household income is exhausted: two meals a day at school, modest federal SNAP (food stamps) subsidies and food from a local food pantry or meal site?

In western Massachusetts, we are experiencing a “new normal” state of food insecurity. More households than ever before are facing hunger for longer periods of time or for the first time. This situation will worsen until and unless the economy grows dramatically, jobs are created that pay wages that can support families, and policymakers ensure that more people get a good education or specialized training to fill these jobs.

That said, more and more working families are a paycheck, an accident or a layoff away from food insecurity or the risk of outright hunger. Today, about a half a million workers in Massachusetts earn less than $11 an hour, especially women with only a high school education.

However, even two income earners making $11 an hour can’t support their family of four on $45,760. The Crittenton Women’s Union calculates that a family of four (two working adults with two children, one of whom is pre-school-aged) in Northampton must earn at least $55,808 a year just to meet its basic household expenses. This family is confronted with a $10,000 “hardship gap.”

Without adequate incomes that support their families, anti-hunger programs like SNAP and the regional emergency food network are essential.

We must be fully prepared to meet the growing need for food assistance. The Food Bank’s goal for the coming year and beyond includes replacing the one million-pound decline in federal food over the last year with new sources this year, and increasing food distribution by another two million pounds by 2018.

In addition, we will sustain our SNAP outreach and enrollment. For a relatively small staff investment, the Food Bank can tap into this federal program to increase the food purchasing power of thousands of eligible households with lower incomes while also supporting businesses that employ residents to boost the local economy. Over the last year and a half alone, our SNAP efforts have assisted more than a 1,000 households purchase approximately one million additional meals to feed their family members.

Without the SNAP program, we (and the other 200 food banks across the country) would be overrun by the demand for food assistance.

More than 166,000 residents in western Massachusetts and 45 million nationwide receive SNAP benefits. Yet, at this moment, Congress is considering cutting the SNAP budget by as much as $16 billion over the next 10 years.

It is estimated that 1.8 million individuals nationally would lose their SNAP benefits completely. This is a recipe for disaster. The fate of SNAP and tens of thousands of neighbors in our region could be decided as early as this month or January.

We are fortunate that the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation (and a total of 95 House representatives) signed a resolution rejecting this proposal. I urge you to call and thank your representative and senators for their continued leadership to protect SNAP.

Please join us in calling on Gov. Deval Patrick to urge the president to protect and strengthen SNAP with no cuts including no changes to the so-called “Heat and Eat” policy. Call the governor’s Boston office at 617-725-4005 or his Springfield office at 413-784-1200.

Only with community support will the emergency food network continue to do its job for as long as it takes. The Food Bank believes everyone has the right to nutritious food to lead a healthy and productive life. We hope you do, too, and that you will join us in doing something about it.

Andrew Morehouse is executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Inc. in Hatfield.

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