Columnist Claire Morenon: Addressing the hunger cliff

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Published: 7/27/2020 5:54:33 PM

Hunger in the United States is nothing new. Nearly 12% of the people living in our country went hungry in 2018 — 37.2 million people, including 11.1 million children. This year, because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, Feeding America predicts that hunger could increase by 45%, impacting 54 million people in the United States. This includes 18 million children.

Locally, food insecurity rates are projected to rise by more than 50% in Franklin and Hampshire counties, and by more than 40% in Hampden County, affecting 107,790 people.

The spread of hunger is one of many devastating human costs to the pandemic. It’s also a sobering reminder of the disgraceful levels of hunger and inequity that we have accepted in our communities for too long.

Christina Maxwell, director of programs at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, says, “One thing the pandemic has highlighted is not just that people are hungry, but how close to being hungry so many people really are. People are just hanging on and it doesn’t take much to put them over the edge. The pandemic has also highlighted so many inequities in our country — people of color are suffering the effects so much more, both economically and to their health. It’s our greatest wish to work ourselves out of a job, and the pandemic has shown us just how much more work there is to do.”

Here in western Massachusetts, strong networks of emergency food providers are filling the gaps for our communities. Farmers and other local businesses are essential partners in this work. Local farms donated 645,967 pounds of produce to The Food Bank in 2019. Farmers continue to donate food and sign on to projects that feed their neighbors even as the pandemic brings new challenges for their businesses.

Emergency food providers grappled with sudden and immense disruptions as the pandemic spread. According to Maxwell, some Food Bank partner sites have seen demand increase by more than 100%, and the average increase is 25%. A third of the people seeking help are new to the emergency food system. Meanwhile, The Food Bank was weathering disruptions to their regular supply chains and making immediate changes to how food is distributed; for example, most member agencies switched to prebagged food and to-go meals.

As existing systems have flexed to accommodate the pandemic, new projects and relationships have emerged. One such example is Northampton’s Community Food Distribution Project. In March, COVID-19 forced the Northampton Survival Center to shut its doors. Within a week, Grow Food Northampton, Community Action Pioneer Valley, and the Survival Center had set up a new, temporary base of operations at the Jackson Street School. Today the team distributes grocery boxes, which include local produce, through 12 sites in Northampton.

Michael Skillicorn, associate director of Grow Food Northampton, reports that over 40% of residents of housing communities managed by the Northampton Housing Authority participate in this program each week, and 70% of participants are taking advantage of new delivery options.

Quick response from funders is an important piece of this puzzle. Local Roots Care, the funding collaborative which initially enabled Grow Food Northampton to purchase local food for the Northampton Community Food Distribution Project, emerged to help both local farms and local residents weather the crisis.

CISA’s Senior FarmShare program, which has provided low-income seniors with shares of local produce since 2004, was able to expand this year thanks to $30,000 in emergency pandemic funding from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

Grassroots efforts are carrying an immense amount of this work. Members of the newly formed Holyoke Food and Equity Collective have working in food justice for several years, and this season they have begun gleaning produce that would otherwise go to waste from local farmers’ fields and delivering it to local food pantries.

Neftali Duran, one of its six volunteer organizers, says, “During COVID, we can see that the food system is broken. People are choosing between food and rent. Meanwhile, we know that an immense amount of food gets wasted in the field. Farmers are busy, but they want the food they can’t harvest to go somewhere, and that’s where we plug in.”

The Holyoke Collective is working with volunteers to expand its gleaning program and is developing a formal intake process for volunteers that will draw an explicit connection between its anti-hunger work and its commitment to anti-racism. Says Duran, “The concept of mutual aid is nothing new for communities of color. We have always had to rely on each other to survive, so we help each other out all the time.”

As we enter the fifth month of the pandemic, some of the emergency measures that have kept people afloat, including additional unemployment benefits and the Pandemic EBT program, have ended or will soon unless Congress acts. Behind the scenes, federal waivers that reduced red tape for emergency food providers have lapsed. For thousands of households and the agencies that serve them, the future looks uncertain.

The speed with which organizations and people have responded to this crisis, from the biggest anti-hunger agency in the region to communities organizing together, is staggering. These and other efforts, big and small, will need ongoing financial support and advocacy. We encourage you to connect with The Food Bank, your local food pantry ,or other efforts in your town, and find your legislators to share your concerns at usa.gov/elected-officials.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).


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