Guest columnist Andrew Morehouse: To address regional food insecurity, become part of the solution

  • Fresh produce recovered from area farms. THE FOOD BANK OF WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS

Published: 2/14/2022 8:58:45 AM
Modified: 2/14/2022 8:56:58 AM

No one in our region, the commonwealth of Massachusetts or the United States should be food insecure.

Most everyone would agree with this statement yet as a society we have different views on how to achieve it. I am often asked, “Shouldn’t the goal of The Food Bank be to solve hunger and put yourselves out of business?” Believe me when I say, nothing would make us happier. Solving hunger isn’t easy when society cannot agree on its causes, much less how to address them.

Limited financial resources due to job loss, underemployment, minimum or near-poverty wages, disability, accident, divorce, (systemic) racism, and many other circumstances often, together, contribute to food insecurity. Even with the economy improving, many households and communities will continue to be left behind because economic growth is never even and historically does not “raise all boats.” To make matters worse, food prices may continue to increase more than the 6% last year due to supply chain obstacles.

At The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, our twofold mission is “to feed our neighbors in need and lead the community to end hunger.” Households struggling to make ends meet cannot wait for us to “end hunger.” They need healthy food now. For this reason, we make available the equivalent of about a million meals of healthy food every month for those who need a hand up. True to our history, half of the food we provide is rescued from the food industry and would otherwise go to waste.

The Food Bank is able to do this in partnership with dozens of local farmers and many more dozens of retail and wholesale food businesses. Similarly, 170 partner food pantries and meal sites work tirelessly to distribute this healthy food to anyone who needs support to overcome obstacles faced often that are beyond their control. These frontline faith-based and nonprofit members of our region’s emergency food network continue to demonstrate their important role when our economy fails to provide for everyone in society.

Over the last 17 years, I’ve witnessed state and federal governments increase funding for the regional food banks like ours to purchase more food in response to greater demand for food assistance, especially during the Great Recession and now during the era of COVID.

The Food Bank is grateful for this investment which is essential to meet the immediate need. We also acknowledge this approach will not achieve food security sustainably and efficiently for all, much less “end hunger.” Only effective government intervention in our free-market economy can do this at scale through public policies and investments that level the playing field for everyone, especially during periods of economic crisis. SNAP and school meals are but two examples of this kind of effective intervention. These programs need to be strengthened.

Still, there is much more to be done to support households living in poverty and near poverty as they strive to achieve economic stability. An example is addressing the perverse “cliff effect” that strips people of public assistance when they get a job or wage increase. Far too often, these households are left with fewer resources to help them afford market rent and utilities, food, and other expenses. They revert to public assistance and are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Smarter public policy would continue to support them until they are more economically stable and no longer need benefits.

The pandemic and the media coverage of it have exposed the disproportionate impact economic downturns historically have on people of color and people of lower incomes generally. At The Food Bank, we lead the community in advocating for food security and promote solutions that address the underlying causes of hunger in our region, including institutional racism and funding inequities. The policies we promote help advance our “end hunger” mission.

Many other nonprofit organizations across our region are also leaders, working creatively with residents to advocate for and provide other critically important services and resources in their communities. The Food Bank is honored to work with and learn from many of them to strengthen households and communities.

The Food Bank is at a turning point in its history. The need for food assistance continues, but our infrastructure is no longer adequate to meet the challenge. In the last three years, we have had to decline close to one million pounds of food for lack of space at our current warehouse in Hatfield.

After many years of planning, we purchased land in Chicopee, launched a capital campaign, and designed our future, larger, and greener food distribution center and headquarters. This spring, we plan on breaking ground on our future home, completing construction in about a year, and moving into it by the summer of 2023. In the decades to come, our new home in Hampden County, which has the largest concentration of people living with food insecurity, will enable us to carry out our twofold mission more effectively and in closer partnership with people with lived experience.

Fortunately, the community has rallied behind us these last two years of the pandemic and over the last 40 years since our founding in 1982 in a church in Springfield. We invite everyone to join us under our big tent to support our two-fold mission. Start by visiting our website (foodbankwma.org) to learn more about us and our capital campaign. Then, become part of the solution!

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


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