By Sarah Robertson
CHICOPEE – Food banks across the state are experiencing unprecedented levels of demand as inflation pushes the cost of food higher and emergency aid programs initiated by the pandemic come to a close.
“Food insecurity is on the rise in Massachusetts, and across the country for that matter,” Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said at a press conference at McKinstry Farms in Chicopee on Monday. “It shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that food inflation is hammering families that are trying to make ends meet.”
Since the pandemic began the number of Massachusetts residents receiving help from food banks has doubled. In 2022 the state’s four major food banks – the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, and the Worcester County Food bank – served more than 800,000 people every month. These nonprofits distribute food to hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers, and other organizations across the state.
Representatives from the four food banks attended Monday’s press conference along with an assortment of Hampden county politicians to request more government aid to address hunger. Morehouse told the small crowd that the coalition of food banks is requesting $41.5 million in funding from the state for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP) in the next fiscal year. That is over $10 million more than what Governor Maura Healey’s administration is proposing in the 2024 fiscal year budget.
“We’re requesting – we’re imploring – the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to invest in MEFAP $41.5 million at this point in time, when people need the food most,” Morehouse said.
According to data analyzed by the Greater Boston Food Bank, food insecurity in Massachusetts has increased by 70% since the pandemic began. One-third of adults in the state experienced food insecurity in 2021, as well as half of all households with children.
The late state representative Peter Kocot introduced legislation that established the MEFAP in 1995. The program paid for about 26.4% of the food purchased for the four major food banks in the 2022 fiscal year. The rest mostly comes from donations and federal funding.
“That program has been essential in times of crisis and need,” said state senator Adam Gomez, whose district includes parts of Chicopee and Springfield. “We’ve seen it when Hurricane Maria hit.”
Last year MEFAP received an additional $10 million in emergency funding, bringing it to about $30 million. This year the governor is proposing $31.2 million for MEFAP.
Meanwhile, a slew of other pandemic-era supports either have ended or are ending, including supplemental food stamp benefits, extra unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, and the federal child tax credit. State and federal grants meant to offset pandemic-related financial challenges, such as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), are also temporary measures that have helped address food insecurity but are not expected to come back.
“It’s a serious problem,” Morehouse said. “And to make matters worse, COVID-era federal benefits have dried up, and national supply chain obstacles are preventing the United States Department of Agriculture, the single-largest recent supplier of food inventory for food banks, from purchasing and delivering that food to us.”
Before the pandemic, the federal government typically paid for about 25% of the food distributed by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. According to public policy manager Laura Sylvester, that figure is now closer to 17%. To fill the gap, the food bank’s board of directors recently approved spending $500,000 in emergency funds to purchase food.
“We’re blowing through our rainy-day fund,” Sylvester said. She added that due to inflation, food banks are also paying more money for less food.
The backdrop chosen for Monday’s announcement was McKinstry Farms, a fifth-generation family farm locally famous for its sweet corn.
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is relocating from its longtime Hatfield headquarters to Chicopee, about three miles from the farm. The new $26.3 million building is expected to open in September, The Reminder reported.
Monday’s event began with the farm’s matriarch and patriarch, Nicole and Bill McKinstry, sharing some of their family history. Standing in a nearly finished packing garage, the couple talked about how they have recently built a new farm store, and are expanding their growing operations.
For the past two years the McKinstrys have taken part in the MassGrown Initiative, a pandemic-inspired program funded by MEFAP to promote intra-state exchanges among food businesses, intended as a way to protect against supply chain disruptions. Through this initiative, the farm has provided tens of thousands of pounds of food to the Food Bank.
Ashley Randle, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources, called MEFAP a “shining example of a public-private partnership.”
“Today’s farmers are facing so many challenges… with inflation and the rising costs of inputs such as feed, fertilizer, and fuel on top of climate change,” Randle said. “We’ve witnessed that certainly in the last few years.”
Grants have helped offset the cost of other recent investments at McKinstry Farms, including a walk-in refrigerator and the new packing shed where the press conference was held.
At the peak of the planting season. McKinstry Farms hires around 45 farmworkers, many of whom work under temporary agricultural worker visas, known as an H-2A. The business is currently advertising seasonal positions on their farm on the US Office of Foreign Labor Certification website. Last year, the pay was advertised at $15.66 per hour, working 48 hours per week. This year it is listed at $16.95 per hour.
Will McKinstry, a recent college graduate taking over management of the family farm from his parents, said the farm is spending lots of money on fuel for tractors. The family owns fields in Amherst, Hadley, Granby, and Belchertown, and often drive tractors from town to town.
“Managing a crew can be a challenge,” McKinstry said. “Sometimes our guys need to start in the morning and pick corn in Hadley, and then have to go pick broccoli in Granby…. It’s a lot of time on the road – a lot of fuel, too.”
The Big Picture
Senator Gomez, who represents parts of Chicopee and his hometown of Springfield, told attendees he is advocating for increased funding for the MEFAP program so that “food reaches the communities that I grew up in.”
Gomez said that he has experienced periods of financial hardship. When his family lost their home, he said, they had to rely on institutions served by the Food Bank.
During the last legislative session, Gomez introduced a bill to protect the rights of people working seasonally on Massachusetts farms, who tend to be migrant workers. “An Act establishing fairness for agricultural workers” would have mandated a minimum 24-hour rest period every week, and a maximum work week of 55 hours, but it died in committee.
“We’re still negotiating with the farms as well, to try to give them an incentive to pay farm hands an appropriate wage,” Gomez told the Reporter. “A lot of the resistance we’ve had is from farmers who own farms. They say that it’s going to hurt them, but at the same time you’re overworking individuals – you’re not paying them retirement, you’re not paying them overtime. They’re basically working six days a week with no breaks, and they’re not getting a fair wage.”
US legislators are also pushing for more funding for food systems at the federal level. Massachusetts representative Jim McGovern signed a letter encouraging the House subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration to fully fund The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)’s administrative grants account at $100 million, and is requesting $15 million for the Emergency Food Program Infrastructure Grant Program.
Global food prices hit record highs last year, according to the United Nations, partly due to extreme weather events and the war in Ukraine. To counter increased pressure on the food system and the scarcity of workers who maintain it, federal legislators tried to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act last session. The bill would have expanded access to the H-2A visa program and established a system to verify farmworkers’ legal immigration status. It passed the House, but Republicans in the Senate rebranded it as the Affordable and Secure Food Act, and ultimately declined to include it in an omnibus spending package.
“In Hampden County, we know that we have the most impoverished county in the state of Massachusetts,” Gomez said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to go that route, but I think the truth is evident: without the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, a lot of people would probably starve.”
A version of this article was published in the Montague Reporter. Photo courtesy of the author.
Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass.
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