Food insecurity focus of state Senate debate

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 15, 2018, by Melina Bourdeau

In their second consecutive forum this week, the four Senate candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District agreed Tuesday night that more funding is needed to help tackle food insecurity throughout the Valley.

Candidates Chelsea Kline, Jo Comerford, Ryan O’Donnell and Steven Connor participated in three rounds of questions at the forum at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. The questions all focused on the topic of food insecurity. One round came from the sponsors of the two-hour debate — the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Franklin County Resource Network Public Policy Task Force, the League of Women Voters of Franklin County and CISA — another round from the audience, and another spinning a wheel with various topics attached.

Candidates were asked what they could do to sustain the Healthy Incentive Program (HIP) that allows Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to maximize their benefits by offering them a $1 for $1 reimbursement to purchase foods and vegetables at farmers markets, farm stands and mobile markets. The program, which ran out of funding last year, served roughly 7 percent of the total users.

Each of the candidates agreed that HIP and SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, are important and need more funding.

Comerford said the SNAP program needs to be prioritized rather than being at the bottom of the economy.

“It’s the way, the beginning, the doorway that helps a family begin to send kids to school with full bellies and help people look for jobs,” Comerford said. “The Legislature must make this a priority. We must core fund it and make it the legislative priority for this district.”

O’Donnell said the increase in the 2019 budget for the HIP program is not enough, but there are other solutions.

“Apart from funding, the question is what specific policy steps we can take to make it sustainable and I think there are a couple,” O’Donnell said. “There are a lot of people on MassHealth who would be eligible to participate and take advantage of it and we should make it easier to access those benefits. Massachusetts leads in where our federal government has failed.”

Connor said the program was insufficiently funded and when the money ran out, people stopped using HIP.

“We need to do a better job of acting quickly,” Connor said. “We were about ready to reach a crisis in not being able to get things at the farmers market. The state of Massachusetts needs to act even quicker when we try to give out these things to our people.”

Kline said food insecurity is at a higher rate than it was a decade ago and the way to solve it is to look for other places of revenue.

“We need to be looking for other ways of revenue and funding the things we care about, I am tempted to suggest a sugar tax, which has been used places like Berkeley, California, and Colorado,” Kline said. “The funding generated by those things decreases the consumption of sugary drinks and then brings money into nutrition programs.”

Candidates were also asked about ways to prevent children from becomes victims of food shaming because their parent can’t afford to pay for food.

Kline is the only candidate on the ballot and Comerford, O’Donnell and Connor are all write-in candidates. The primary will take place on Sept. 4.