Progress report: McGovern addresses steps needed to end hunger in 7 years at western Mass. strategy session

By Sydney Ko

For the Gazette

Published: 03-23-2023 6:15 PM

Seven years. That’s how long Massachusetts, and the nation, have to meet an ambitious goal of eradicating hunger.

It’s an ambitious goal, but one that advocates and politicians who work tirelessly to address hunger believe is within reach if momentum made on the issue in the last year continues to build.

But first, says U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, the nation must adopt a strategy of addressing hunger as a single issue rather than attacking the problem in “silos,” as is currently done. For instance, when addressing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, the debate is limited to discussion in the Agricultural Committee, while universal school meals are debated in the Education Committee.

Speaking before a coalition of legislators and advocates at a March 17 western Massachusetts-focused strategy session on the heels of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health that took place last September in Washington, D.C., the Worcester Democrat reiterated his advocacy for permanent universal school meals, the state’s healthy incentives program and expanding medically tailored meals.

“Our shared goal is to end hunger in Massachusetts and across the United States by 2030, to tackle diet-related disease, and to strengthen local farms and the food system,” McGovern said.

The progress meeting held last week, which also outlined next steps, was organized and co-hosted by The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Growing Places, Stone Soup Café, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, and more. It also included the region’s state delegation, including Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst.

Federal help

At the White House Conference on Hunger last September, the Biden administration dedicated more than $8 billion in funding for hunger-related issues.

“In the months following the conference, the Congress has got to work on some of the priorities that were laid out in the strategy, [to] create a permanent summer EBT program to give families with kids $40 per child per month,” McGovern said.

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Congress recently passed McGovern’s The Food Donation Improvement Act to aid retailers, manufacturers, farmers, and schools in donating food directly to people in need. McGovern also noted that the House approved a $1.7 trillion omnibus bill in December, which includes the “highest level of non-defense spending in history.”

The omnibus bill provides nearly $773 billion for domestic programs, covering expenses through the 2023 fiscal year. More than $18 million in federal funding will be allocated to central and western Massachusetts in the year-end spending bill.

The bill would provide funding for Farm to School and school meal equipment grants.

“The bill funded other priorities laid out in the national strategy like major increases in funding to support affordable child care in safe housing,” he said.

While there is still a lot that needs to be done in these areas, McGovern said it is a “good start.”

Earlier this month, Biden released a budget outline that featured items from the conference. It included an expansion of community eligibility and medically tailored meals, as pushed by McGovern. While funding for K-12 school meals is still being pursued, McGovern said he introduced a bill to permanently increase the reimbursement rates for universal school meals.

“I recently introduced legislation to permanently increase the reimbursement rates paid by the federal government to schools for every breakfast, and every lunch served, and it is important because we talk a lot about the quality of food that we provide our kids in school, but we also talk about supporting our local farmers with little bit extra money for breakfast and lunch,” McGovern said.

Western Massachusetts progress report

Last summer, state lawmakers allocated $110 million toward extending the federal free school lunch program, a program that is set to expire this year.

The Healey-Driscoll administration filed a $734 million supplemental budget last week to provide additional funding for core programs and services, such as COVID-era workforce and public health programs. The proposal bill builds on the investments made in the governor’s proposed budget recommendation for fiscal 2024, which includes additional support for the state’s universal school meal pilot program.

“We need to make universal school meals in Massachusetts permanent,” said Domb.

Domb said that while the Legislature was able to include additional money to make sure that school meals continued through the end of this academic year, it is also important to view what happened during the pandemic as a “pilot program” for the community.

“We need to make sure it [free school meals] continues for every student in schools … any effort that Congressman McGovern can do to increase the federal allocation is going to make the Legislature’s ability to pass that a little bit easier,” Domb said.

In tandem with making universal school meals permanent in the commonwealth, Domb said that it is also important to make sure the Healthy Incentive Program continues its momentum in increasing access to locally grown food.

HIP works in coordination with SNAP to provide extra benefits to purchase fruits, vegetables, and food-producing plants at farmers markets. The program puts money back into its recipients’ EBT cards from participating farm vendors. This provides healthy choice incentives and redirects funds back into the community.

“It’s a win-win in Massachusetts for both people who are on SNAP, as well as our farmers,” Domb said.

Phil Korman, executive director of CISA, echoed the importance of HIP.

“We know HIP accomplishes three things: it extends a households food budget; improves the health status of families by giving them fresh produce; and it’s allowed farms to sell more of their harvests locally in their region to people they were not reaching,” Korman said.

He added that while it is hard for families on SNAP to get their benefits, it was not easy for farms to participate in SNAP or HIP.

“Despite all the work we’ve all done in this community in the state, we still only have 5% of households on SNAP using HIP statewide,” Korman said.

“The solution to hunger is not cheaper food,” he said.

Systemic solution

The progress report meeting also invited other speakers, who attended the White House Conference, to share their points of view.

Liz Wills O’Gilvie, Springfield Food Policy Council Director, and Erin McAleer, President and CEO of Project Bread, both noted the importance in finding a systemic solution and addressing racial equity to end hunger in Massachusetts.

McAleer said she applauds the White House’s focus on a systemic solution when 21% of families in Massachusetts face food insecurity. Of those 21%, a third are Black and Latino families, revealing a disproportionate impact on minority households.

“Too often we focus on individualized solutions when it comes to this issue [food insecurity] and that’s why I’m so grateful that the President of United States put forward systemic solutions to address food insecurity.”

Following the conference, McAleer said Project Bread, an organization that provides food assistance for families in Massachusetts, brought together a group of people including legislators, organizations leading policy coalitions, and individuals with lived experience to talk about their immediate priorities.

The group concluded the systemic solutions to food insecurity would need to meet five pillars, including making sure low-income families and individuals can easily access available resources, investing tax relief and cash assistance, and having Healey appoint a senior level administration official to coordinate work in the executive branch.

“There’s lots of work ahead in the coming months to develop the Massachusetts State Plan. We want an early win here in Massachusetts for the universal free school meals,” McAleer said.

Sydney Ko writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program. ]]>