Opinion: Hunger in the Season of Giving

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 30, 2016, by Claire Morenon

Hunger is a pressing issue in the Pioneer Valley region of Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties, where 11.2 percent of the population is hungry or, to use the official term, “food insecure.” That’s just over 79,000 of our neighbors who don’t always have enough food, or can’t access nutritionally adequate food. Children are disproportionately represented in those numbers: 26,220 children, or 17.8 percent of the under-18 population of our region, are living in households without enough to eat. And these numbers have grown. In 1968, approximately 5 percent of the national population was dealing with hunger; today, it’s 15.4 percent.

At the same time, Americans spend less on food as a percentage of income than anyone else in the world, and that percentage has fallen by 45 percent in the last 55 years. In 1960, Americans spent 17.5 percent of their disposable income on food, and by 2014 that percentage had fallen to 9.7 percent. These falling food prices have put the squeeze on farmers, and local farmers struggle to set competitive prices that also cover their costs and earn enough income for their businesses to thrive.

Farms in our region have notably higher production costs than farmers do in other parts of the country and world. The Massachusetts agricultural minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum wage, land values in our state are among the highest in the country, and agricultural services and inputs are more expensive here than they are in the most agriculture-heavy states. These higher production costs are often not reflected in the price of local food. A year-long study conducted by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, released in 2015, compared a total of 1,600 prices and found that produce prices at farmers’ markets were comparable to prices at area supermarkets.

At Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), we envision a vibrant local food system consisting of thriving farms and related businesses, with locally grown, culturally appropriate food widely available to everyone in our community. We believe that a strong local food economy must be equitable; we can’t build sustainable, long-term markets that exist only for the well-off, and we won’t ignore the needs of those in our community who are going hungry. We must hold both of these facts together: first, that too many people struggle to meet their basic food needs, and second, that too many farms, especially those in our region, are surviving on razor-thin margins. How can we make nutritious food more available without squeezing local farms further or leaving them out of the discussion altogether?

Luckily, there are many excellent organizations on the front lines of the fight against hunger, and increasingly, the distinctions between efforts related to different aspects of the food system in our region have been breaking down. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has convened a Hunger Task Force, which has brought together representatives from traditional anti-hunger agencies in addition to people working on economic development, social and racial justice, and in the agricultural sector, to identify shared goals, challenges, and opportunities to work together.

At CISA, we’ve worked to develop programs that pay farmers fairly for food that goes to low-income households — our Senior FarmShare program has distributed $464,250 of food from local farms to low-income seniors since 2004, and our SNAP & Save program, which doubles SNAP/food stamp dollars spent at farmers’ markets, brought a total of $100,000 in SNAP and matching funds to 22 participating markets this summer and will continue to match funds at markets all winter long. Starting in 2017, CISA will be one of many partners on a new program called HIP (Healthy Incentives Program), through which the commonwealth will provide rebates to SNAP households for purchases of locally grown produce. We’re already thinking ahead to the 2018/2019 farm bill, the 5-year federal legislation that impacts both farm policy and nutrition programs like SNAP.

Advocates for local agriculture must look to the experts on hunger in our community for guidance on how we can effectively work to expand access to local food. And to anti-hunger efforts, we bring knowledge about the impacts of cheap food and its externalized costs, visible in the skimpy paychecks of farm and food workers, the precarious balance sheets of local farm businesses, diet-related disease and increased health care spending, and damage to our environment. We see possibility in partnerships that break down barriers between activists and organizations that are working on all aspects of our food system, and we place hope in the conversations that bring us all to the table.

Claire Morenon is the Communications Manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.