‘Shining a light on hunger’

The Recorder, May 14, 2020. By ANITA FRITZ, Staff Writer

Farmers and advocates looking to end hunger in the Pioneer Valley and beyond met online this week to discuss with state Sen. Jo Comerford what can be done.

Comerford, D-Northampton, brought advocates together to discuss not only the issues and how they might be resolved, but the “inequities related to food insecurity.”

“We surveyed the entire region to get a better idea of what we can do,” she said. “Equity was at the center of the comments.”

Just Roots Inc. Executive Director Jessica O’Neill said the Greenfield nonprofit is doing its best to make sure food reaches everyone who needs it in Franklin County. It offers a subsidized CSA share program and a community garden, and accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, and Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) benefits.

“We’ve seen a 30 to 40 percent increase in participation in our SNAP/ HIP farm share program,” O’Neill said. “We’ve enrolled an additional 100 members.”

Just Roots is also offering a subsidized COVID-19 program for people who are newly impacted by the pandemic.

“We’ve added those people to the others who are income-eligible,” she said. “We have 400 families now, which is about 1,200 people, who will receive subsidized farm shares for 20 weeks. That’s 120,000 meals from June to October.”

Additionally, O’Neill said Just Roots has teamed up with Stone Soup Cafe to deliver 200 meals every other week to people in need. She said the nonprofit is filling immediate needs because of the pandemic, but wants to determine how some of what is being done now can become a long-term or permanent solution.

That’s a sentiment shared by Christine Maxwell, director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, who hopes some of the actions the food bank is taking now can become more permanent.

“Our team is on overdrive right now,” she said. “We’re partnering with member agencies, like food pantries and shelters and organizations and meal programs. We have to make sure people have food every day. But we have to figure out how to put an end to hunger in a sustainable way.”

She said the food bank is helping people apply for SNAP benefits, noting there are a lot more eligible people than was originally anticipated.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) Executive Director Philip Korman said many people aren’t aware of how bad things are for their neighbors.

“Things were bad before COVID-19,” he said. “This has just made it much worse. COVID-19 is shining a light on (hunger).”

CISA works with hundreds of farmers who have been adversely impacted by the pandemic, Korman said, with many of places they supply having closed, including schools, colleges and restaurants.

“But, within a few days, they were looking at new ways to run their businesses,” he said. “We’ve got two farm collaboratives and a couple of farmers markets have opened in the area.”

But Korman said he worries about the safety of farmers, their workers and people working in grocery stores, who don’t all have protective gear.

“It’s not easy to be in the middle of this,” he said. “They are all risking their lives to feed everyone’s families.”

Seeds of Solidarity Executive Director Deb Habib said the nonprofit in Orange is located in the “lowest-wealth” area in the region. She said the nonprofit, which grows food, provides educational programs and workshops, and provides information about healthy eating, offers vegetable shares to people with HIP benefits, as well as recipes to guide people in preparing healthy food.

“We’re promoting health and partnering with farmers to get food to the food insecure,” she said. “There are so many factors that affect people, like food, housing, poverty, joblessness. We have to address all of those. We have to be innovative in our thinking.”

Grow Food Northampton Executive Director Lisa Klein said just days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and everything started to shut down, her organization was partnering with the local food pantry to deliver food to those in need. “People are receiving food five days a week,” she said. “We’re also helping farmers by purchasing fresh local produce from them. They’ve lost a lot with colleges and universities and restaurants closing.”

The group talked about how people might be able to use SNAP in more ways, including online ordering, delivery and curbside pickup. Currently, people have to go to where the food is to use their cards, but some people don’t have transportation, for instance. Others are in at-risk groups and don’t want to go out. Maxwell said advocates need to find a way to get the government to loosen the rules and regulations and offer waivers for those reasons.

O’Neill said making it easier for people to use SNAP and HIP would be a triple win: farmers, people purchasing food and the local economy. She said she’d like to see the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees SNAP and HIP, offer automatic CSA enrollment to make it simple for recipients.

Maxwell said she wants to see more vendors accept HIP, noting that in some areas throughout the Pioneer Valley it isn’t easy to find them.

Comerford said more attention needs to be paid to the seniors in every community who might not be able to leave their homes to pick up fresh, local food or are on a fixed income and aren’t able to afford fresh food.

“The risk of food insecurity has intensified for them because many are afraid to go out in the pandemic,” Comerford said. “They are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in so many ways.”

The conversation was part of Comerford’s ongoing efforts in her capacity as a member of the state COVID-19 Command Center’s Food Security Task Force. She is also the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, co-chair of the Legislature’s Food Systems Caucus, a member of the state Food Policy Council and facilitates the Senate’s COVID-19 working group.

Comerford said people can contact her to talk more about hunger at jo.comerford@ m a s e n a t e .gov. Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@ recorder.c o m .

“Our team is on overdrive right now … We have to make sure people have food every day. But we have to figure out how to put an end to hunger in a sustainable way.”