The Recorder – My Turn: To address regional food insecurity, become part of the solution

No one in our region, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or in the United States should be food insecure. Almost everyone would agree with this statement, but as a society we have different views on how to achieve this. I’m often asked, “Shouldn’t the goal of The Food Bank be to fight hunger and put itself out of business?” Believe me when I say nothing would make us happier. Solving hunger is not easy if society cannot agree on its causes, let alone how to address them.

Limited financial resources due to job loss, underemployment, minimum or poverty wages, disability, accident, divorce, (systemic) racism and many other circumstances often combine to contribute to food insecurity. Even as the economy improves, many households and communities will continue to lag behind because economic growth is never smooth and historically does not “lift all boats.” To make matters worse, food prices could continue to rise more than the 6 percent last year due to supply chain barriers.

At the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, our dual mission is to “feed our neighbors in need and inspire the community to end hunger.” Households struggling to make ends meet cannot wait for us to “end hunger”. You need healthy food now – today, tomorrow, next week. That’s why we provide the equivalent of about a million meals of healthy food each month to those who need help. True to our story, half of the food we provide is saved from the food industry and would otherwise go to waste.

The Food Bank is able to do this in partnership with dozens of local farmers and many more dozens of retail and wholesale businesses. Similarly, 170 partner food supplies and food locations work tirelessly to distribute these healthy foods to anyone who needs support to overcome obstacles they commonly encounter that are beyond their control. These faith-based and nonprofit members at the forefront of our region’s emergency food network continue to demonstrate their important role when our economy cannot support everyone in society.

Over the past seventeen years, I have witnessed state and federal governments increase funding for regional food banks like ours to provide more food in response to greater demand for food aid, particularly during the Great Recession and now the COVID era to buy.

The Food Bank is grateful for this investment, which is essential to meet immediate needs. We also recognize that this approach will not achieve sustainable and efficient food security for all, let alone “end hunger”. Only effective government intervention in our free market economy can achieve this on a large scale, through public policies and investments that create a level playing field for all, especially in times of economic crisis. SNAP and school meals are just two examples of this type of effective intervention. These programs need to be strengthened.

However, much more needs to be done to support households living in poverty or near-poverty in their quest for economic stability. An example is the perverse “cliff effect” that deprives people of public support when they get a job or a pay rise. Far too often these households have fewer resources to afford market rent and utilities, groceries and other expenses. They resort to government support and are caught in a cycle of poverty. Smarter public policy would continue to support them until they are more economically stable and no longer in need of benefits.

The pandemic and media coverage of it have highlighted the disproportionate impact that past economic downturns have had on people of color and lower-income people generally. At The Food Bank, we lead the community by advocating for food security and promoting solutions that address the root causes of hunger in our region, including institutional racism and funding inequalities. The policies we promote help advance our mission to end hunger.

Many other nonprofit organizations in our area are also leaders, working creatively with residents to advocate for and provide other important services and resources in their communities. The Food Bank is honored to work with and learn from many of them to strengthen homes and communities.

The Food Bank is at a turning point in its history. The need for food aid continues, but our infrastructure is no longer sufficient to meet the challenge. Over the past three years we have had to turn away nearly a million pounds of food due to space constraints at our current Hatfield warehouse.

After many years of planning, we purchased land in Chicopee, launched a capital campaign, and designed our future, larger, greener food distribution center and headquarters. This spring we plan to break ground on our future home, completing construction in about a year and moving in by summer 2023. Over the coming decades, our new home in Hampden County, which has the highest concentration of people living with food insecurity, will allow us to fulfill our dual mission more effectively and in close partnership with those with lived experience.

Fortunately, during these last two years of the pandemic and the last 40 years since our founding in 1982, the congregation has gathered behind us in a church in Springfield. We invite everyone to join us under our big tent to support our dual mission. First, visit our website (foodbankwma.org) to learn more about us and our capital campaign. Then become part of the solution!

Andrew Morehouse is CEO of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Comments are closed.