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OPINION

Hungry Americans need the Senate to act now

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis have resulted in more Americans facing food insecurity than at any other time since the Great Depression.

Chelsea Collaborative volunteer Roberto A. Garcia (left) handed out potatoes to community members at a food donation on July 15.
Chelsea Collaborative volunteer Roberto A. Garcia (left) handed out potatoes to community members at a food donation on July 15.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Nearly one million people in Massachusetts are living with food insecurity and need Congress to act.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a short-term spending package. While this may avoid a government shutdown, it falls short of what is truly necessary at this historic moment when food insecurity is at a high never seen before in this country. We cannot rely on food banks alone to feed our way out of this crisis.

The deal, if passed by the Senate, will contain support for food nutrition assistance programs, including an extension through the school year of Pandemic-EBT, a critical new program that expands access to meals for school children and their families as the pandemic has disrupted school schedules. Yet, this isn’t the only support needed at this time.

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The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis have resulted in more Americans facing food insecurity — not knowing where their next meal will come from — than at any other time since the Great Depression. We, the undersigned Massachusetts anti-hunger organizations, are calling upon Congress to put aside partisan differences and pass a meaningful COVID relief package before the October recess. During this unprecedented public health and economic emergency, the American people urgently need help to put food on the table and pay their rent or mortgage.

In May, five months ago, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which included provisions we strongly urge the Senate to take up:

Food Security

▪ Increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program maximum benefits by 15 percent, increase the minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30, and suspend the Trump administration rules that would cut benefits. Food insecurity and access to affordably priced food continue to be challenges for individuals and families.

▪ Provide emergency funding for child nutrition programs to allow meal sites to continue to serve children during closures. Significant loss of revenue during school closures threatens the ability of meal sites to continue to serve children through the duration of the crisis.

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Child care

▪ Invest in child care and pass the Child Care Stabilization Fund to keep providers open and ensure parents are able to go back to work as it is safe to do so.

Housing

▪ Emergency Solutions Grants funding will prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness.

▪ Congress should enact a national, uniform moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to protect all renters and homeowners.

▪ Emergency rental assistance ensures people who have lost income can avoid housing instability during this public health crisis.

Tax Credits

▪ Adopt the provision in the Heroes Act that would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for more than 15 million low-income, working childless adults aged 19-65.

Unemployment Insurance

▪ Extend the $600 per week supplemental unemployment benefits through Jan. 31, 2021. Since this benefit expired at the end of July, millions of Americans are facing an “income cliff,” with many “unable to cover food, clothing and other living expenses,” according to an analysis from the Urban Institute.

Fiscal Aid to States

▪ The HEROES Act provides $540 billion in grants to states, tribes, and territories to help curtail mass layoffs, extended furloughs, and harmful cuts to services people rely on. Rainy-day funds cannot come close to making up the budget shortfalls caused by pandemic-related loss of revenue. Without this aid, states will be forced to make cuts to education, healthcare, and other vital services.

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Massachusetts had one of the strongest state economies in the nation, but this crisis hit us particularly hard. Our service, health, and education industries are especially vulnerable to the pandemic. Since May, the Massachusetts unemployment rate has been well above the national average.

Before the coronavirus, nearly 10 percent of households across the Commonwealth were food insecure — an already unacceptably high number. Feeding America projects food insecurity will increase as much as 53 percent across the state this year, affecting nearly one million people. Over the last six months, the four food banks, serving about 1,000 partners across the state, have seen an average increase of 64 percent more clients seeking food assistance. Between the beginning of March and the end of September, the SNAP caseload increased by a stunning 15 percent — to over half a million households.

Fluctuating federal unemployment benefits as well as uncertainty around various nutrition programs have added to the anxiety around meeting this increased need.

The sudden halt of economic activity has resulted not just in a massive loss of jobs, but a drastic reduction in state revenue, creating a multi-billion budget shortfall. Without federal aid, there will be more layoffs and cuts to basic services that will cause even more hardship. The cost of inaction is incalculably high for state governments, small businesses, and especially families.

Failure is not an option. Congress must act now.

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The Food Bank Coalition of Massachusetts, The Food Bank of Western MA, The Greater Boston Food Bank, Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Worcester County Food Bank, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and Project Bread.