State legislators hear about hunger and what they can do

  • Jean Terranova, from left, Sarah Downer, Damaris Arroyo and Dr. Kinan Hreib give a panel presentation on “Food is Medicine and Health System Integration” at the Food is Public Health Oversight Hearing on Friday afternoon at Greenfield Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Legislators from across the state, including representatives Natalie Blais and Paul Mark, gather at Greenfield Community College to attend the Food is Public Health Oversight Hearing on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Western Massachusetts leaders from schools, social service agencies and those who fight hunger daily testified before legislators Friday at the Food is Public Health Oversight Hearing at Greenfield Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Jean Terranova, from left, Sarah Downer, Damaris Arroyo and Dr. Kinan Hreib give a panel presentation on “Food is Medicine and Health System Integration” at the Food is Public Health Oversight Hearing on Friday afternoon at Greenfield Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Jean Terranova, from left, Sarah Downer, Damaris Arroyo and Dr. Kinan Hreib give a panel presentation on “Food is Medicine and Health System Integration” at the Food is Public Health Oversight Hearing on Friday afternoon at Greenfield Community College. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2019 11:14:37 PM
Modified: 9/27/2019 11:14:27 PM

GREENFIELD — Everyone should have access to nutritious food. That was the message legislators heard loud and clear on Friday.

Legislators from across the state, including representatives Natalie Blais and Paul Mark, gathered at Greenfield Community College at the invitation of their colleague, Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who was also present, to hear about hunger in Franklin County, the Pioneer Valley and across the state, and how they might be able to help.

Western Massachusetts leaders from schools, social service agencies and those who fight hunger daily testified before legislators, just as they would at the State House, to ask for help at the Food is Public Health Oversight Hearing that Comerford arranged.

Jean Terranova, director of food and health policy for Community Servings in Jamaica Plain, told legislators that every person in Massachusetts should have access to nutritious food, and that if people thought of food as medicine, the state would have healthier communities and spend less on health care.

Damaris Arroyo, food assistance referral coordinator at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said she and her family needed food assistance when she was growing up. She said the state and federal governments need to fund programs that allow organizations like food banks to connect people to healthy food and improve health.

She said there are many challenges attached to hunger, including reimbursement, economic growth and transportation — if someone can’t afford a vehicle and can’t get to a grocery store, farmers market or farm, they can’t access healthy food.

Many of those who spoke said a lot of it comes down to funding different programs, including those in schools.

Superintendent of Greenfield schools Jordana Harper said the city’s schools have made great strides in offering healthy choices to students and offering breakfasts to all students every school day. But, she said, schools want to do more.

“It’s so important for students and the world they’re growing up in to have a healthy future,” Harper said. “Public health is so important.”

She said healthy eating also decreases the risk of mental issues and childhood obesity, and increases academic performance. Some of the programs Greenfield schools offer not only provide healthy choices, but eliminate, or at least reduce, the stigma that comes with free meals.

Harper said 66 percent of students in Greenfield schools qualify for free or reduced lunches, and administrators believe that number is even higher, because some don’t report their situation or apply for those meals.

Others told legislators about how local farmers are trying to make fresh, healthy food accessible to all.

“Farmers need a seat at the table when talking about (hunger),” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative.

Still others said that there need to be more incentive programs, like the Healthy Incentive Program (HIP), which allows participants to buy food at farmers markets. They also agreed there has to be more ways to make CSA farm shares more accessible.

Melissa Osborne, a nursing graduate from Greenfield Community College who now works at Clinical Support Options, said CSO helps clients find wellness programs and workshops, and screens them for chronic illness. She said unhealthy eating can cause physical and behavioral health problems, along with chronic health issues.

Osborne also told her personal story. While she was attending GCC, she was a single mother of two children.

“I was living in subsidized housing and needed all the help I could get,” she said. “And then, I got off assistance and found another barrier, because everything was so expensive, so we were eating less healthy food than when I was on assistance.”

Other professionals who spoke to legislators addressed issues like hunger-free campuses, where students would have one less worry.

Liz Willis-O’Gilvie, Steering Committee chair and working director at the Springfield Food Pantry, said schools across the state have to be held accountable for what they’re feeding their students. Obstacles to good food have to be removed, she added, and school and community gardens have to be the norm.

Additionally, Willis-O’Gilvie said city and town lawmakers have to revamp local zoning, so that more community gardens can be planted and the food can be used in schools. People of color and low-income residents must also have access to the same food as everyone else.

At the end of the day, no decisions or promises were made, except for legislators to say they heard the concerns and will do their best to continue to address and try to eradicate hunger.


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