Tackling Issues of Nutrition, Hunger Requires Multi-level Approach
All Hands on Deck
In the six months since the Biden-Harris administration hosted the second-ever White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern has recognized the significance of the moment — only, he hopes it’s more than a moment.
“The first and only other conference was held more than 50 years ago — in 1969, the year we put somebody on the moon,” McGovern said at a recent virtual gathering with officials from food-justice organizations, farm advocates, public-health leaders, healthcare providers, and other legislators, to discuss the White House event, legislative action that has emerged in its wake, and what is being done in Massachusetts — and what more can be done — to end hunger.
“The only way that we’re going to eradicate hunger and improve health is by centering our work with a racial-equity lens.”
“Out of this conference came an ambitious but achievable roadmap to end hunger and reduce diet-related disease by the year 2030,” McGovern said, adding that the conference has the potential to impact even more change than the 1969 event, which is saying a lot, since innovations like WIC, the modern-day SNAP program, and better food labeling came out of that session.
“There were so many important things,” he went on. “But I think this conference, if we do the follow-through, has the potential to have even a greater impact on this country.”
The March 17 briefing, attended by about 300 people, was co-hosted and organized by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Growing Places, Stone Soup Cafe, CISA, the Springfield Food Policy Council, the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, Project Bread, and the Western Mass. state legislative delegation, including state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Mindy Domb.
Liz Wills-O’Gilvie, who chairs the Springfield Food Policy Council, saw the historic nature of the White House event, which she attended, from a unique perspective: her own personal history as “a little Black girl from Springfield who was dependent upon commodities food before food stamps as we know it now existed.
“Our family’s life improved when food stamps emerged out of the last conference,” she recalled, “so I was struck by the significance of the moment I got to be there in that room and hear both President Biden and Secretary [of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack make the comments that they did … that the only way that we’re going to eradicate hunger and improve health is by centering our work with a racial-equity lens.”
To that end, Wills-O’Gilvie called Massachusetts’ Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) — which reimburses EBT card users when they used SNAP benefits for healthy produce from local farm vendors — a tool for racial equity as well as a way to improve the health of families.”
She also called for making universal free school meals permanent in the Bay State, a priority shared by Domb, who also praised HIP, talked up the benefits of food-literacy education, and called for a conversation about hunger on college campuses.
“We need to make universal free school meals in Massachusetts permanent,” Domb said. “It’s terrific that we extended it this year. It’s wonderful that the Legislature in the supplemental budget has included additional money to make sure it continues through the end of this academic year.”
“There’s obviously much, much more that needs to be done in these areas. But we’re off to a good start. And there is finally momentum at a national level behind efforts to end hunger.”
But she said expansion of such benefits during COVID demonstrated how important they are to families, even beyond the pandemic. “So we need to make sure that that continues.”
One Bite at a Time
McGovern said President Biden has made it clear that the federal government wants to implement an aggressive national strategy to end hunger in the next decade.
“In the months following the conference, Congress has gotten to work on some of the priorities that were laid out in the strategy,” he noted. “We created a permanent summer EBT program to give families with kids $40 per child per month over the summer, when we know that hunger is often worse. It’s a small step in the right direction, but it’s an important step in the right direction. And especially during these times of high inflation and especially in the aftermath of the SNAP pandemic boost being cut, this is really, really crucial.”
He also said lawmakers responded to a recent EBT-skimming problem by requiring benefit replacement for those who had SNAP benefits stolen through no fault of their own, mandated that the Department of Defense screen military families for food insecurity, and passed the Food Donation Improvement Act to make it easier for retailers, manufacturers, farmers, and schools to donate food directly to hungry people.
“And we passed a massive omnibus spending bill that includes the highest level of non-defense spending in history. That translates into robust funding for WIC, farm-to-school grants, school meal equipment grants, among other things,” McGovern went on. “There’s obviously much, much more that needs to be done in these areas. But we’re off to a good start. And there is finally momentum at a national level behind efforts to end hunger. We have people in the administration saying that we want to end hunger.”
He also recently introduced legislation to permanently increase the reimbursement rates paid by the federal government to schools for every breakfast and lunch served.
“We talk a lot about the quality of food that we provide our kids in school, but we also talk about the importance of supporting our local farmers,” he explained. “With a little more money for breakfast and lunch, it gives school districts and people who oversee school meals some flexibility to do some things that, right now, they don’t do because it’s too complicated or it might cost a little bit more.”
Kirsten Levitt, executive chef and co-director of Stone Soup Café, a volunteer-driven, pay-what-you-want meal spot in Greenfield, also attended the White House conference and came away with the belief it will take all sectors of the nation to eradicate hunger, and Western Mass. has the ability to be a national model for its emphasis on farms, food, and nutrition. She added that children will be the best ambassadors for health and nutrition, especially if school meals are funded properly.
Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread, an anti-hunger nonprofit based in Boston, identified five pillars to a statewide strategy on hunger, nutrition, and health: increasing access and improving quality of child-nutrition programs, increasing access and affordability of food for all, integrating food access into healthcare, strengthening and integrating the local food system, and ensuring economic stability and promoting economic opportunities to address the root causes of hunger.
“I never imagined I would be sitting in a room with the president of the United States, and certainly never imagined I would be sitting in the room when he expressed that what I went through my childhood was unacceptable — that food insecurity is unacceptable,” McAleer said.
“When 21% of families in Massachusetts are food-insecure and 33% of the Black and Latino families in Massachusetts are food-insecure, that is a systemic issue. And that requires systemic solutions. Too often, we focus on individualized solutions when it comes to this issue.”
“What I really appreciated about the plan that was put together by the White House is the focus on systemic solutions,” she went on. “When 21% of families in Massachusetts are food-insecure and 33% of the Black and Latino families in Massachusetts are food-insecure, that is a systemic issue. And that requires systemic solutions. Too often, we focus on individualized solutions when it comes to this issue.”
McGovern agreed that fighting hunger and improving nutrition is a battle that can, and should, be waged on all levels — federal, state, and local.
“There are things that can be done at the local level — things like expanding access to culturally appropriate cooking classes, bringing gardens and hydroponics to every school, and more robust food-recovery partnerships. All of this is going to require close collaboration.”
Menu of Activity
On the state level, myriad bills have been filed recently relating to nutrition, hunger, and agriculture: “An Act Relative to Universal School Meals,” “An Act to Promote Food Literacy,” “An Act Protecting Our Soil and Farms from PFAS Contamination,” “An Act Strengthening Local Food Systems,” “An Act Promoting Equity in Agriculture,” “An Act Relative to an Agricultural Healthy Incentives Program,” “An Act Supporting the Commonwealth’s Food System,” “An Act Encouraging the Donation of Food to Persons in Need,” “An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Hunger-free Campus Initiative” … the list goes on.
Comerford said those who organized the March 17 briefing with McGovern wanted participants to be inspired by the White House’s 2030 hunger goals, tackle diet-related diseases like hypertension and obesity in the Commonwealth, and strengthen the region’s food system and farms in the process.
“We also want to help participants take away concrete and timely action steps around critical budget priorities and policy proposals that are going to move the Commonwealth boldly toward ending hunger in just a handful of years.”