The final discussion in the MA Food System Collaborative’s discussion series focused on the responses to the dramatic increase in the number of people in Massachusetts who are food insecure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists discussed the programs and collaborations that have addressed some of the growing needs, as well as advocacy campaigns to influence state and federal policy to address these issues systemically.
Leran Minc, assistant director of public policy at Project Bread, reviewed many of the programs that have been altered by the federal and state governments to make it easier to serve people in need including SNAP, the summer meal program, P-EBT, and the emergency food assistance program. He suggested that many of the changes made in response to the crisis should be extended until the economy recovers, and that some should be made permanent as a way to reduce barriers to people receiving the help they need to eat healthy meals. Opportunities to advocate on the federal level include ensuring that COVID relief bills include consideration for increasing food access, and that the upcoming versions of Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the Farm Bill adequately address food insecurity. Advocacy opportunities at the state level includes supporting a common application system to reduce the SNAP gap, expanding HIP, ensuring that college students are eligible for SNAP, and Project Bread’s newly-launched campaign for universal school meals.
Casey Burns, director of the Coalition for a Healthy Greater Worcester, spoke about the creation of Worcester Together by city leaders, which helped to coordinate a response and raised over $10 million, none coming from federal or state funds. Subcommittees of the group focused on emergency food and logistics, built on existing frameworks from previous disaster responses. They created a delivery program that contracted with BIPOC-owned restaurants to deliver hot meals to those with COVID and food insecurity. The group advocates that future recovery efforts rely on local knowledge to inform the solutions and acknowledge the critical role of coordination.
Norris Guscott, director of the Lynn Public Health Department and Lynn Food and Fitness Alliance spoke about the formation of the Lynn Food Security Task Force. The group collected information from the most vulnerable residents about what help was needed, interpreted guidance for local organizations such as the Lynn Farmers Market, helped various parts of the food system to communicate with each other and with the general public, and analyzed where gaps in the system remained. After discovering that many P-EBT cards had not been used, they did an outreach campaign to explain how to activate them and that families would not be penalized for using them. They also worked to reach hidden communities with information about available resources and secured funding for local programs.
Laura Sylvester, legislative and community partnership coordinator at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts spoke about how the food bank works to address underlying causes of hunger, believing that food pantries should be for emergencies not a regular source of food. In addition to generally responding to the increased need and the disrupted supply chain, they helped institute new distribution models such as pre-bagged food at food pantries and home delivery to those who were homebound. Emergency food programs will require more funds for equipment to be able to function outdoors comfortably, Laura said, and better public transportation would help to increase access for many food insecure households. The Food Bank will continue to advocate for the Hunger Free Campus initiative to reduce food insecurity among college students, and for legislation to reduce the Cliff Effect, the sudden reduction in benefits when someone reaches a certain income threshold.
The panelists discussed how they ensure that help is provided with dignity - through various types of outreach, in many languages, and with messages that resonate and destigmatize accessing food assistance. Participants discussed that food insecurity is often connected with feelings of inconsistency around income, the type of help that is available, and how to find more information. They spoke about the importance of working with people with lived experience of hunger and of reaching out to hidden populations.
Advocates should build on the increased awareness of inequities to steer the conversation to confront the underlying causes of hunger. Advocacy should also focus on making sure barriers to accessing food assistance - such as SNAP or school meals - don’t return following the pandemic.
Adapting to COVID: Food for Free