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Andrew Morehouse: Food aid’s fragile future

The existence of hunger in America and in our region is immoral. We could solve hunger if we had society’s commitment and the political will on Beacon Hill and in Washington. Federal and state government nutrition programs are essential to provide households with adequate nourishment and to prevent hunger. Not only has federal funding declined in the last couple of years, but drastic cuts are on the horizon. State funding has been flat for several years while food prices increase.

What makes matters worse is that demand for food assistance has increased despite the end of the Great Recession. Our region’s emergency food network, made up of the Food Bank and our 300 independent partners (like meal sites and pantries) cannot effectively address hunger alone. Across the four counties of western Massachusetts we are facing unprecedented chronic demand for food assistance, with fewer resources. We are adapting to this new reality — and a problem we were never designed to solve alone. Government is abandoning our fellow citizens when they most need our assistance.

Even though our national economy has improved in recent years, more and more households — traditionally considered “middle class” — struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table due to long-term unemployment, underemployment or stagnant wages that do not keep up with the rising cost of living.

Since the Great Recession began in 2008, the need for food assistance here has dramatically increased. In fact, between 2006 and 2010, the Food Bank documented a 22-percent increase in the number of people served across the region. Last year alone, more than 135,000 people received emergency food.

What I hear most often from food-insecure individuals is that they would rather be earning a living than enduring the societal stigma of having to seek assistance from the community or the government. Recently, I met a volunteer named Jim at Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen and Pantry in Chicopee. A couple of years ago, his wife had to quit her job due to an illness before he was suddenly laid off. They had no other choice than seek food at Lorraine’s and apply for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Without work for 18 months, they and their three children survived due to the combined assistance from Lorraine’s and SNAP. Neither resource alone would have been enough. Today, Jim and his wife are employed again and no longer rely on assistance, but he continues to volunteer, giving back to the community that helped his family.

SNAP not only helps people like Jim buy nutritious food, it boosts the local economy. Millions of dollars in federal SNAP benefits spent at grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers markets create jobs for local residents. Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics (and former economic advisor to Republican presidential candidate John McCain) estimates that SNAP is the most powerful federal economic stimulus policy.

Now, 166,000 individuals in western Massachusetts rely on SNAP benefits to get by each month. Cuts to this program will mean an even heavier burden on them. Cuts to SNAP will result in a wave of more food insecure households turning to the emergency food network. We are already at capacity.

As a caring and civilized society, we must demand government’s commitment to eradicate hunger in America and Massachusetts. Adequate funding is essential for SNAP and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Similarly, more funding is needed for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Please call your state legislators and tell them to increase MEFAP funding by an additional $3 million to $15 million to buy food for all four food banks in the Commonwealth. Also, call your congressman and senators of the Massachusetts delegation, thank them for fighting to protect federal nutrition and anti-hunger programs and ask them to urge their colleagues to do the same.

For more information on how you can take action against hunger, visit www.foodbankwma.org or call at 247-9738.

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

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