HATFIELD — As anti-hunger advocates outlined a three-point plan to “move the needle” toward ending hunger in western Massachusetts, two of the region’s leading politicians in Congress vowed to fight to protect and expand food assistance programs.
“Hunger is a political condition,” Congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, told a crowd of about 50 people who gathered at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield on Friday. “We have the money, we have the smarts, we have the people who know what to do. We have everything but the political will.”
Joining McGovern at the event celebrating the successes of the anti-hunger movement and looking ahead to future initiatives, were Congressman Richard Neal, D-Springfield, officials from the Holyoke Health Center and other members of the Task Force to End Hunger.
The task force, created a year ago to develop a plan to end hunger in the region, detailed three priorities in a report released at Friday’s press conference. These areas include:
Erase the stigma associated with hunger and poverty.
People who face food insecurity often feel shame, which can limit their participation in safety net programs that could help them, the 12-page report states. The report recommends addressing this stigma through educational programs, in the media and in retail stores where assistance programs are used.
Address public policy issues related to food insecurity.
Among the recommendations include addressing the “cliff effect,” which occurs when people who are receiving public benefits begin to earn more money and, subsequently, have their benefits reduced to such a level that they are worse off economically than they were before the pay increase.
Other efforts in this category include initiatives to reduce poverty, provide living incomes, protect federal and state nutrition programs and improve participation in federal nutrition programs.
Develop a “one-stop” way, with Holyoke Health Center, to provide integrated services for those who need them.
Meanwhile, McGovern and Neal said they intend to support legislation during fiscal 2017 that will defend and bolster access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), expand tax credits for low- to moderate-income working families and fund healthy incentives, farming and workforce development programs.
Neal said the main cause for widespread food insecurity include high unemployment coupled with a low number of those unemployed claiming benefits.
“This means that people who never in a million years would have dreamed of showing up for food sustenance are doing it,” Neal said. “And the best poverty program is still a job.”
McGovern pointed out that President Donald Trump’s 11 percent increase in military spending will result in a sharp decrease in nutrition and food programs. He suggested expanding national security agendas to include food security.
“Making sure you can live a life without having to worry every day whether or not you’re going to go hungry — that is national security,” McGovern said. “To me, that’s more important than how many bombs we have in our arsenal.”
McGovern said that the use of food banks is due to the “inadequacy” of SNAP. He said he is “ashamed” that the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, yet 42 million people are hungry.
The congressman emphasized the need for doctors, nonprofits, politicians and schools to work with food banks to end food insecurity in their communities.
In 2016, the Food Bank distributed over 10 million pounds of food to over 200,000 people across western Massachusetts. Of those struggling with food insecurity in the area, roughly 31 percent are under the age of 18.
The Food Bank provides emergency food to individuals and families in the area, as well as to member agencies like food pantries and child care centers. The also offer groceries to the elderly, mobile food banks and outreach programs about nutrition and attaining food assistance.
Leaders from local nonprofits attended the press conference, including Brandon Braxxton from MassDevelopment, William Davila from the Center for Human Development, and George Newman from the Big Y World Class Market.