Columnist Claire Morenon: Hunger and local farms

Here in the Connecticut River Valley region of Massachusetts, 9.7% of the population is food insecure. That means that 68,600 of our neighbors in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties don’t always have enough food or can’t access nutritionally adequate food.

Children are disproportionately affected by hunger: 14.3% of the under-18 population live in households without enough to eat. That’s 20,260 children who are going to bed hungry, or whose guardians are going without so their children can eat. This time of year, as family and friends gather to give thanks and celebrate over food, the human impact of these numbers is especially stark.

The social and personal consequences of hunger can’t be overstated. Our neighbors are forced to choose between food and utilities, health care and housing. Children who don’t get enough to eat are more likely to struggle in school and beyond.

Hunger rates in the United States have risen in recent decades. In 1968, 5% of the United States population was hungry; today, it’s 12.5%. Even as hunger has increased, food spending as a percentage of income has fallen from 16.8% in 1960 to 9.7% in 2014. How is it possible that, during the same time period, hunger rates have more than doubled while food prices have fallen by 42%? The answer largely lies in stagnant real wages and rising income inequality.

While falling food prices have not solved the problem of hunger, they’ve exacerbated the challenges of farm viability. Farms throughout the country have felt the squeeze, with an 18.9% drop in agricultural land nationwide since 1964, and a 35.3% drop in the number of farms.

As farms have dwindled and the agricultural industry has consolidated, the consequences have rippled out in the form of environmental degradation, poor working conditions and faltering rural economies. Although the costs of many agricultural inputs, especially labor and land, are higher in Massachusetts than in most other states, Bay State farms must meet prices set in the global marketplace or turn to niche markets and products to sustain their businesses. Farms and consumers are both caught in a downward spiral.

At CISA, we want to build a food system where local farms and related businesses can thrive, and where nutritious, culturally appropriate local food is available to everyone. Our existing food system puts these goals at odds, pitting the needs of people with low incomes against the needs of people who grow food — with real consequences for everyone.

While much of the change needed to address income inequality must occur at the state and federal level, local action can also have an impact. CISA provides vegetables to low-income seniors through our Senior FarmShare program and we’re working with farmers’ markets to ensure that they are welcoming to all local residents. We work to ensure that local farms are part of the solutions developed in partnership with local food justice and anti-hunger organizations and advocates.

At the state level, the Healthy Incentives Program, or HIP, provides an instant rebate when people use SNAP to purchase fruits and vegetables directly from participating local farms. This state-run program has helped 70,000 families purchase $13.5 million of local produce since its inception in 2017. It relies on a network of organizations and advocates working in partnership with the state, and it benefits local families, local farmers and the state economy.

As it has in the previous two years, HIP is facing a funding shortfall and a seasonal suspension later this winter, which will cause devastating scarcity for the people who reply on it. HIP alone isn’t enough to untangle all the causes and consequences of hunger, but it offers a vital lifeline to thousands of people and a needed boost for local farms.

This program needs sufficient funding from the state to run year-round, and it needs more farms to be permitted to participate. Over the last two years, our legislators have heard from their constituents that HIP is a state priority and they have responded. This work is not done, so stay turned for more opportunities to increase funding and access for this program in the months to come.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).