On April 4, industry leaders gathered for several panels at Harvard University’s Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center to discuss topics ranging from food waste to agricultural innovation at the Small Change, Big Impact Food Summit. The event was hosted by Harvard University Dining Services and Hormel Foods.
The problem of food insecurity was a centerpiece of the event, and Greater Boston Food Bank chief operating officer Carol Tienken spoke candidly about the issues facing Massachusetts and the country.
“We’re not getting ahead of this problem,” she said. Roughly one in eight people in the United States is food insecure, she said, whereas in Massachusetts, “we have a tongue-in-cheek bragging point — we’re one in 11,” she said. The organization’s goal is to meet all of the needs of the food insecure community by 2028. People who are food insecure are unsure if they will have food or be able to obtain it on a given day.
“We talk a lot. We have a lot of meetings. But what’s going to change?” she asked.
Tienken has a unique perspective on the issue: She grew up in sub-Saharan Africa, the child of a diplomat, and witnessed famine firsthand. While the United States doesn’t struggle with famine, we do grapple with malnutrition — and a perception problem.
“People wonder, ‘If there’s dire need, why is there obesity?’ Calories are cheap. Nutrition is not. And that’s what’s not accessible to people,” she said.
She noted that hunger’s impact on health costs in Massachusetts alone is $2.4 billion, in the form of doctor’s visits, emergency room treatments, and prescription medicines. The Greater Boston Food Bank works with more than 550 programs to distribute food, 65 percent of which is produce, protein, and dairy.
“Food is the least expensive way of addressing this,” she said.
She also underscored that food insecurity exists on Massachusetts college campuses, an often overlooked but vulnerable demographic.
“Food insecurity among college students is scary. It’s almost half in community colleges, and a third in our state universities. People aren’t aware of this,” she said.
In a subsequent conversation, Tienken praised Massachusetts as devoting more resources to hunger than many other states.
“Here, MEFAP [the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program] is an $18 million budget line item, started under the Weld administration,” she says. These funds provide support for the GBFB, as well as the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and the Worcester County Food Bank. Together, they serve approximately 700,000 people.
Still, she said, obstacles persist. SNAP enrollment is an issue among those who fear deportation. Food insecurity screenings in health care settings pose more hurdles. “This is one more thing a doctor has to do in 15 minutes. And then what? That’s not clear at all. What are the resources, and how can people be directed to those resources?” she said. Logistics are another problem. Many people have trouble getting to pantries or visiting during operating hours.
“How do we collaborate with others, how do we find partners, and how do we do it together?” she asked.
Happily, there were also some answers. On April 3, several groups competed in an Impact Challenge, where groups presented ideas for promoting positive change in the food system. Hormel provided $16,000 in grant money to winners.
The Cambridge Public Schools Food & Nutrition Department received $6,000 for a food vacuum sealer. Sealed meals utilizing leftovers could be served at their monthly family food banks and for a weekend backpack program.
“The food they’re serving in Cambridge — fresh fruits and vegetables — is so much different than the typical chicken nuggets,” said Hormel president and CEO Jim Snee, who provided the Summit’s keynote speech. Tufts University’s New Entry Food Hub also received $5,000 to support a program to train beginning and immigrant farmers; their produce would be distributed to 500 food insecure individuals.
“There’s a negative perception of big food, and we’re adamant about telling our story,” said Snee. “We have the resources and human capital. We can do a lot of great things, and we don’t want to do it in isolation.”