October 23, 2019
On September 27 the Joint Committee on Public Health held a “Food Is Public Health Oversight Hearing” in Greenfield. Speakers included advocates and practitioners from across the Commonwealth, all speaking to the need for programs and investments in healthy eating as critical to protecting public health. A written summary and video of the full hearing is available here.
The following is the testimony of Emma Morgan, an advocate and HIP customer, from that hearing:
My name is Emma Morgan, and I looked up some stats: MA ranks 5th in the nation for direct market sales of agricultural products—that would be CSA’s, farm stands and farmers’ markets—all the stuff we like to call “farm to table.” MA ranks 3rd in the nation for direct market sales per farm, and MA ranks #1…in our nation–#1–for direct market sales as a percentage of the state’s total sales of agricultural products. So our “Farm to Table” ratio as a percentage of our state’s total ag sales is highest in our whole nation. And yet, whose tables are these that are graced so regularly with the bounty of our local farms? This comes down to equity and access.
I was an early childhood educator until I became too disabled to work consistently in my late twenties, at which time I entered the world of public benefits, adding one set atop the next as the years went by (food stamps, fuel assistance, housing voucher, healthcare, etc.). As I got less able to work in classroom settings, I freelanced a bit in homeschooling and private childcare for middle class families. One day, in my thirties, a childcare client went on vacation and offered me her farm share for the few weeks she was away. All I had to do was pick it up, so I did. I’d heard of CSA’s and how amazing they were, but I never anticipated the mind-blowing experience of the lush displays of leafy greens, multi-colored squash and other vine fruits, the full rainbow of root vegetables that greeted me, when I arrived, along with blackboards telling me I could just take five of these, fill two bags of those, and measure one to three pounds of countless other delights, much less the well-groomed field where I could pick more food and even cut fresh flowers for my table. I thought, WOW! Apparently some people eat like this every single week!
Like a kid in a candy shop, I loaded up my car and then, as I unpacked it, understood for the first time, since I left home at seventeen, what a full refrigerator looked like. New questions, like what might I like to cook, replaced my usual question of how can I string enough sales and coupons together each week to acquire the ingredients of a balanced meal more days than not each month. After all, organic cereal is good cereal, but it doesn’t make for a square meal at dinnertime. Living with debilitating chronic health conditions every day requires that I eat nutrient dense food every day, just to manage my symptoms. But affording organic produce always meant buying frozen veggie packages—whichever ones were on sale on a given day at a given store, and I always know which stores have what sales when. My goal had simply been to include at least one vegetable in at least one meal each day, not including sandwich toppings. Suddenly, while my client was away, I got a taste of what it was like for our abundant, local farms to grace my table.
Good value or not, buying a CSA share was unthinkable–boutique food–a luxury I could only dream about, until my late forties, when the Just Roots, donor-supported CSA came along, and I was an early adopter. In the pilot years of the Just Roots CSA, I could buy my share for only $5.00, paid weekly at pick-up time, and I could use SNAP or cash, depending on which I had more of that week. The bounty of the harvest was mine again, and each week I had to challenge myself with new cooking projects just to use up all the food before the next week’s pick-up. I was exploring and creating and new recipes and eating lots vegetables in at least two of my daily meals. Frozen veggies weren’t even in the picture. But farmers need fair pay and, over time, as the CSA expanded, the donors weren’t sufficient to cover the gaps; so the share cost literally doubled and doubled again, since the pilot, and I dropped out after year four. While still an amazing value, the donor-supported CSA’s just need more funding, if they are to feed the lowest income people.
But, by year two or three, another great thing had happened. CISA’s double-dollars program magically converted another boutique food source—the Farmers Market–into an accessible one overnight. Some weeks, the market would double five food stamp dollars into ten, but some weeks they made ten into twenty. So I’d go and pick up ingredients I needed that weren’t in my farm share or even non-produce foods like fresh eggs and honey. I showed up even on weeks didn’t shopping, just to do the food stamp doubling, and I’d stow those wooden coins for weeks I needed more, especially in winter, when there was no CSA, then trade ‘em in for parsnips, eggs, potatoes and spinach at the winter market. How’s that for straw into gold?! And get this. Except in winter, my food stamps were routinely lasting all the way to the end of the month—unheard of!
And then came HIP. I’ve always called it Hip Hip Hooray! Cause that’s how it really feels each month, when I get $40.00 of fresh, organic produce added to my food stamp allotment. Double Dollars tapered off here in Greenfield, once HIP came along, and without the CSA, things don’t stretch the way they did; but HIP is still incredible…in the months when it’s funded, that is. Alarm bells went off, each time yet another program suspension was announced. We’d find ways to use every last HIP dollar on that final day before the announced suspension took effect, only to see the program rescued at the eleventh hour again and again. Great news, yes, but how would you like to feed your family under those conditions, never knowing if you’d get fruits and vegetables that month? That scarcity came real, last winter, when the program actually was suspended, and there were no double dollars to make up the slack.
Ya’ know, low-income people are not bears, and we don’t hibernate. Believe it or not, we need to eat in all four seasons, just like you. In a country where big ag gets subsidies to grow corn for cows, we need more subsidies for CSA’s; we need four-season HIP funding and double dollars at every farmers market; and we need you to fully fund whatever innovative programs farms and non-profits can create. If food insecurity leads to poor health outcomes, as all the studies demonstrate, then I think we can all agree that food security equals public health. In MA, we consider quality healthcare to be a “right,” and not a “privilege;” so how ‘bout quality food? Is that a right?