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OPINION

Our food system will collapse without federal assistance

In June, 17.3 percent of households in Massachusetts saw an increase in food insecurity, up from 9.3 percent during the same month in 2018.

People line up in April for a food bank organized by Healthy Waltham, one of the region's many nonprofits that are responding to increasing demand in food donations during the COVID-19 crisis.
People line up in April for a food bank organized by Healthy Waltham, one of the region's many nonprofits that are responding to increasing demand in food donations during the COVID-19 crisis.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

This week, Senate Republicans released their version of another round of coronavirus aid that’s roughly $2 trillion less than the proposal House Democrats released in May. Unfortunately, this bill falls far short of meeting the challenges many individuals and families are facing on a daily basis, particularly when it comes to hunger.

In June, 17.3 percent of households in Massachusetts saw an increase in food insecurity, up from 9.3 percent during the same month in 2018. The absence of quick and meaningful action from Republican members of Congress coupled with the end of an additional $600 per week from Unemployment Insurance Relief on July 31 is sure to cause an even further increase in the need for food assistance resources. At the same time, our traditional charitable fixes — food pantries and food banks — are already stretched thin and cannot meet the scale of what we are facing.

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The situation demands an urgent, wide-scale, and political response.

Hunger has always been a political crisis demanding a federal response. The COVID-19 pandemic has only clarified this as needs are exacerbated. And yet, in election after election, food insecurity and hunger become fodder in debates over who is eligible for help and how much they deserve. Our federal government has underfunded critical anti-hunger programs for decades and continues to put up barriers to access. As a society, we have turned to charity food banks and food pantries to fill the void. This is the foundation of the problem. We don’t rely on charity to educate our kids or to pave our roads, so why do we rely on charity to meet our basic human need for food?

We already have programs in place that enable people to purchase their own food, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP, the largest of the federal assistance programs, provides nine times the amount of food as food banks and is designed to expand with need through a preestablished distribution network, our nation’s retail grocers. Not only does SNAP fulfill an immediate need for food, but it also puts money back into the local economy, which is desperately needed right now. Every $1 of SNAP benefits generates $1.70, which supports communities and creates jobs. There are more than 4,800 retail establishments across the Commonwealth that accept SNAP, allowing recipients the dignity of purchasing food that is appropriate for their own health needs and cultural background. SNAP is the single most efficient and effective program our nation has for addressing hunger.

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The US Senate is refusing to increase SNAP benefits because Republican senators say the program disincentives work. This is factually inaccurate. In 2018, more than three-quarters of families participating in SNAP had at least one person working, and about one-third included two or more workers in the household. Clearly, many families who rely on nutritional assistance work and do not make enough money to afford food to feed their families.

In Massachusetts, a worker making minimum wage would need to log 80 hours a week just to afford a two-bedroom apartment, let alone heat, medical bills, and childcare, leaving little to nothing left for food. And minority and under-resourced communities are being hit the hardest.

The State of Hunger in Massachusetts, a report issued in July by Children’s HealthWatch, Project Bread, and the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, reinforces the role deep inequities in our system have in the disproportionately high rate of food insecurity experienced in Latinx communities, even as it also reveals a strong community with powerful neighborhood bonds. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed report living in food-insecure households prior to the pandemic. The report illustrates the urgent need to build an equitable and systemic response to food insecurity immediately and for the long term.

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Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, with the food and resources to ensure no one goes hungry. We can ensure none of our neighbors go hungry, but we need a political approach. It will require citizens coming together to tell legislators that everyone deserves the right and resources to purchase food.

We call on our US senators to keep the pressure on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to support an increase for SNAP. We call on our members of Congress to be unrelenting in their support of expanding SNAP. We call on Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature to prioritize funding not only to support but also expand efforts to connect families to SNAP and other federal nutrition programs, like WIC and school meals, in the face of what is likely to be the most difficult state budget process in our lifetimes.

If you were struggling to feed yourself or your family, what would you want? The majority of callers to Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline (1-1-800-645-8333), a statewide resource for Massachusetts residents facing hunger, are most relieved when they learn that SNAP benefits will give them the purchasing power to buy the food their family wants to eat. Let’s demand the political will to give people that purchasing power. If you want to solve hunger, pick up your phone and contact your elected officials. We have enough food in America to ensure all our neighbors have equitable access to purchase food — and to correct what has been an injustice all along.

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Erin McAleer is president of Project Bread.