Massachusetts is one of the richest states in the richest nation on earth and yet, 1 in 10 people and 1 in 7 children struggle with hunger. That’s 701,630 of our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. It’s 187,920 kids. That is a moral outrage and it should spur action to ensure no one goes hungry. Unfortunately, this hasn’t proven to be the case. Thanks to a recent study by Children’s Health Watch of Boston Medical Center we have a new way of thinking about the costs of hunger and with it hope for renewed action.
The study found that food insecurity costs Massachusetts $2.4 billion in healthcare and education expenses. By collecting peer reviewed data on the connection between specific diseases, conditions and food insecurity, researchers showed what many working in Food Banks, Pantries, classrooms and hospitals have known for years - something we all know intuitively - not knowing where your next meal is coming from takes a toll. That toll, built up over time has long lasting and costly impacts. Impacts that cost significantly more than investing in the upfront solutions to hunger.
There is an unfortunate irony that this study was released the same week as President Trump’s budget. President Trump proposed eliminating half of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), and replacing it with a government issued box of food. This short-term “money saving” measure won't help anyone who is hungry and will actually cost taxpayers more in the long run. In the 2017 budget, the federal government will spend $70 billion on SNAP and other food assistance programs. For comparison sake, in the recent budget compromise, the Department of Defense’s budget will increase by $80 billion each of the next two years, rising from $549 billion to $709 billion. We have the resources, what we don’t have is the political leadership or will.
While we cannot change federal budget policy and priorities overnight, Massachusetts can and should do more to tackle food insecurity. It’s the right thing to do morally and the BMC report shows it’s the right thing to do financially. Among other suggestions, the report calls for reimbursing health insurers who screen patients for food insecurity/hunger; for providing access to food resources, like pantries; expanding access to school breakfast programs in high poverty schools and more. I would add to those suggestions the report’s findings support a significant increase in the Mass Emergency Food Assistance Program, to not just hold the line on federal cuts but to reduce the number of our neighbors going hungry every day.
Massachusetts has the resources to end hunger. It will not be free, but it will cost less than paying for the impacts of the problem in the long run. Just as we have on healthcare, marriage equality, clean energy and more, we can be an example for other states and be prepared to show the next federal administration, that the solutions to the hunger problem aren’t a box, they are smart, upfront investments and access.
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.
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