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Ben Downing: Hunger, Pandemics And Politics

On the one hand - skyrocketing unemployment and surging demand for emergency food assistance from Food Banks, pantries and soup kitchens. On the other hand - farms dumping milk, smashing eggs, plowing vegetables into the ground and farms closing. How can this be?

Our food system is broken. For the last 50 years, federal and state policy, combined with technology have shattered it. The result has been fewer family farms, persistent hunger and a frail system that serves a few special interests, while leaving society one crisis away from catastrophe. 

Between 2012 and 2017 514 farms closed in Massachusetts. Economic pressures on family farms have led to consolidation and closure. Many that have survived have been forced to meet the demands of large distributors and other buyers. The same buyers who now tell them they have no need for their crops. 

At the same time, many in Massachusetts experience hunger and food insecurity. It may be less glaring than side by side images of massive lines at food banks, while farmers dump crops, but for too long we have accepted a system that produces those results every day. In one of the richest states in the nation, 616,090 people - our friends, our family members, our neighbors -  weren't sure where they would get 3 meals a day last year, 159,950 of them were kids. Those kids go to school hungry and start out behind their classmates in good times. In trying times, they are bound to fall further behind or face greater obstacles. 

Hunger is a moral disgrace and a political failure. We are the richest country on earth and yet 40 million people in 15 million households struggled last year to get the food they need. This is not a normal we can or should accept. That was true before COVID19 and it is more so after the virus crashed our economy, increasing demand at Massachusetts food banks by 300%.  For too long, policymakers have assumed the trends in our food system were unchangeable. That must stop now. 

Massachusetts can become fairer and stronger, by building a better food system. A resilient food system ensures no one goes hungry. Massachusetts can do this by tripling the state’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. With an additional $40 million, the state’s Food Banks could distribute another 54 million pounds of food to local pantries, soup kitchens and other feeding programs. For context, the last state income tax cut provides a $37.5M windfall, predominantly to the top 1% of income earners. 

Along with meeting everyone’s basic needs, a resilient food system prioritizes local resources. Local farmers need to know they will have a market for their goods and that buyers will not simply default to the lowest cost option. Farmers who pledge a portion of their harvest towards meeting the greater demand at Food Banks should be given priority to fill orders at state agencies and state supported institutions, like community colleges, local hospitals and health centers. Local anchor institutions - major employers, local government and others with deep community ties - should join in these efforts, creating a larger market opportunity for local farmers and for new entrepreneurs to come back into the agricultural sector. 

COVID 19 is a challenge unlike any we have seen. We can overcome it and we will, but we will be challenged again. Instead of being failed by a food system that crumbles at first challenge, we can build a fairer, stronger system that is resilient and a source of strength for Massachusetts. Our food system was broken before COVID19, it does not have to be after. That is our choice.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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