Sen. Benjamin B. Downing: State must be a leader in food security
BOSTON — On July 11, the U.S. House passed a farm bill that for the first time since 1973 did not include funding for nutrition programs that support 47 million hungry and food insecure Americans. The Republican majority in the House could not determine how deeply it wanted to cut the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP — formerly the Food Stamp program), so they chose to ignore it altogether.
In so doing, they also ignored a growing national problem — hunger.
While there is guarded optimism that the Senate version of the farm bill will prevail, simply preserving the existing program shouldn’t be seen as a victory. As U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern eloquently explains, we need to make ending hunger now a national priority. McGovern’s fight in Washington, D.C., is a valiant yet uphill battle. We should support his efforts here at home by choosing to prioritize the elimination of hunger in Massachusetts.
The commonwealth is a national leader on other important issues, like public education, health care and renewable energy. We should now become one on behalf of those most in need.
As House Republicans were advancing their farm bill in Washington, I was on the fourth day of the SNAP Challenge with my colleagues from the Berkshire legislative delegation. Inspired by McGovern and seeking to raise awareness around hunger and poverty, we kept to a food budget of $31.50 for seven days, the average weekly SNAP benefit for most non-disabled individual recipients. I found participating in the challenge while Congress debated the future of the SNAP program to be poignant and chilling. This small peek at the daily decisions made by many families across western Massachusetts gave us all necessary perspective.
Walking a mile in the shoes of the hungry and food insecure was a first step. Now we all need to work to ensure that there are fewer people in those shoes. What can we do at the state and local levels to reduce hunger and food insecurity?
First, we can support the work of our local food banks. Each week, 15,000 western Massachusetts residents — our friends, family, neighbors and co-workers — reach out to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and its partner agencies. This work is assisted by the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), which will receive $14 million in state funding assistance this fiscal year. A short-term increase will allow MEFAP to make up for federal cutbacks in SNAP and will give the state time to develop a plan to get beyond emergency assistance.
Beyond supporting safety net nutritional programs, we can take steps to get more out of them, and help families become more self-sufficient. Welfare reform proposals often focus on symbolic steps, like adding a photo identification to benefit cards. But a much more important aspect of any bill should be financial education and literacy efforts. Too many families lack the basic budgeting skills necessary to get the best bang for their buck. Fresh produce and healthy food options can seem to cost more, but I believe nutritional programs should be used to purchase nutritious food and when done smartly can be comparable in cost. When scarce resources are wasted on soda, chips and candy, more problems are created, without solving the underlying issue.
Finally, the governor should convene a task force charged with developing a strategy to end hunger in Massachusetts. I believe it should be co-chaired by Rep. McGovern and a prominent business leader and should be comprised of leaders from different levels of government, the private sector, farmers, nonprofits and anti-poverty organizations. The task force should be charged with holding hearings, assembling best practices and providing the governor with a plan to submit as part of his final budget next January.
On July 11, 300,000 children in Massachusetts were eligible for SNAP. The actions of Republican House members in Congress left their nutritional futures up in the air. I don’t believe we should sit idly while the needs of our neighbors are so easily ignored.
We can end hunger now in Massachusetts. This challenge requires personal responsibility on the part of those in need; community support to meet the needs of those who work hard, play by the rules and yet are still left behind; and overall awareness so that we pass on a Massachusetts to the next generation that is better than the one we received. I believe we can meet this challenge together and tackle this now. If we want Massachusetts to be all that it can be, we must. It we want to end hunger now, we will.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, represents 52 communities in the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District.