Guest column by Andrew Morehouse: The right to healthy food

  • Volunteers Tom Andros, left, Mark Castro, top, and Luke Wing sort boxes of incoming food at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield, April 18, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/24/2020 2:46:04 PM
Modified: 1/24/2020 2:45:52 PM

The world is complicated and so is hunger. At The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, we believe there is no one cause of hunger; there are many underlying causes.

At a basic level, households struggling to put food on the table lack employment with adequate wages to cover the cost of living. Education, job training, medical care, housing, transportation, child care and other life necessities are unaffordable to many Americans. Of course, employment is not an option for others like elders, children and people with chronic disabilities, including many veterans.

To make things even more complicated, deeper causes of hunger include income inequality, racism, political disenfranchisement and many others. At times, the challenge to end hunger seems overwhelming. What do we do? Where do we focus our energy and resources?

A civilized, modern society must care for its most vulnerable people not only because it’s the morally right thing to do, but because the cost of not doing so would be far greater to our society and economy. When households cannot afford to make ends meet, the marketplace breaks down, and government assistance becomes the primary means to care for the most vulnerable people among us.

At The Food Bank, we embrace multiple solutions to ending hunger precisely because hunger is both a symptom of its many causes and a condition that causes people to have poor health, fall behind, and fall between the cracks. For this reason, we adopt a “big tent” approach to our mission that everyone in the community can be part of and support.

We believe that everyone has a right to healthy food regardless of their circumstances.

We try to provide food assistance to everyone who needs it. Last year, we distributed the equivalent of 10 million meals to an estimated 207,000 individuals across the four counties of western Massachusetts. In Hampshire County alone, we distributed approximately 1.5 million meals to more than 25,000 individuals. The good news is this number has not increased compared to the previous year. The bad news is that far too many individuals still either experience or remain regularly at risk of hunger.

The Food Bank and the emergency food network of 171 local food pantries and meal sites is one important avenue to get healthy food to the people who need it. However, government food assistance programs like SNAP far surpass the impact of our critical national 200-member strong network, providing nine meals for every food bank meal distributed. SNAP has come under the chopping block over the last year to reduce the exploding $1.5 trillion federal deficit. It is important to remember that this deficit was created in large part by tax cuts that were supposed to generate 5 percent annual economic growth and create jobs. With growth at 2.3% in 2019 and projected to be at 1.9% this year, the economy has fallen far short of lifting tens of thousands of people out of poverty in our region.

Three government rule changes were proposed last year that would dramatically cut the number of low-income individuals eligible for monthly SNAP assistance to buy food. The rule that was just issued in December will take away SNAP benefits from current recipients who are “able bodied adults without dependents” who are not working at least twenty hours per week.

The rule ignores the fact that there are both rural and urban communities where jobs are still scarce, and where many people work unpredictable hours. In addition, multiple barriers, including a lack of access to transportation, can prevent low-income individuals from being able to get to and keep a job.

Depriving already struggling individuals of food assistance, including veterans and young adults who are exiting the foster care system, will not help them find work. In Massachusetts, this rule change will affect at least 14,000 individuals when it goes into effect in April. In addition to harming these individuals, the new rule will limit the state’s ability to respond to future economic downturns. There have been other rules proposed that, if enacted, will have a far greater adverse impact on households across the commonwealth who are trying to get ahead in life.

We know this to be true because we help struggling households every week. Last year, we assisted more than 1,300 individuals apply for SNAP benefits. Our nutrition educators provided thousands more with valuable resources and knowledge to be able to stretch their food budget to purchase and eat healthier food. Every month, these households make heart-wrenching choices between paying for food or life’s other necessities.

To advance change necessary to end hunger as we know it, we have launched the Coalition to End Hunger to educate the public about hunger, and advocate for public policies such as making breakfast available to all children in high-poverty school districts and making locally-grown produce more affordable for SNAP recipients. We also advocate for policies that enable struggling households to succeed like workforce development and improved access to transportation.

This year, we are deepening our collaboration with the community. We are buying more farmland to make accessible our region’s agricultural bounty to those who cannot afford it. We are also partnering with health care organizations to address food insecurity as a public health issue. According to a Children’s Health Watch study commissioned by the Greater Boston Food Bank, food insecurity results in health care costs totaling $2.4 billion annually in Massachusetts.

As you can see, The Food Bank is staying focused on its mission to feed our neighbors in need and to lead the community to end hunger. Since 1982, the community has supported our mission. We invite you to be part of the solution to ending hunger as we know it in this new decade by going to foodbankwma.org and clicking on “Get Involved.” Together, we can ensure that no one goes hungry and everyone has access to nutritious food.

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


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