The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is encouraging its member organizations to grab the ears of lawmakers and inform them of their needs.
The first of three advocacy training sessions was held at South Congregational Church in Pittsfield Monday. The food bank is seeking the help of its 300 partner agencies to inform state and federal lawmakers of the need for legislative support and funding to combat hunger and better assist those seeking meals at shelters and pantries. Christina Maxwell is the food bank’s director of programs.
“It’s important for the people who are working with them, day in and day out, to be able to communicate their needs to their legislators in an effective way,” said Maxwell.
About 15 people representing a handful of member organizations took part in the session. It included lessons on state and federal assistance programs, the legality of non-profits being able to lobby and how best to communicate their needs to lawmakers. Mary Wheat runs the pantry at South Congregational Church, which serves more than 300 families two days a week.
“Their lives do change,” Wheat said. “They go up and down. Some have jobs, get laid off, then they get another job and things get better or they get sick and they get healthier. Most of them only come when they really need it.”
Maxwell says the sessions are being held now before the state legislature enters its budget cycle. She adds the food bank typically sees donations drop after the holidays.
“It’s difficult because the summertime is a time of real need for families that people don’t even think about,” Maxwell explained. “We think about them needing holiday meals, but in the summertime with children out of school they don’t have the advantage of free or reduced school lunches and in some cases school breakfasts. So those children are home, all day, every day, and they need to be fed three meals a day.”
Maxwell says food pantries are seeing increased client numbers as low-income families continue to struggle in the economy. She adds they are further being hurt by cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and other federal benefits tied to the Farm Bill. Maxwell also says people are relying on food pantries for longer periods of time.
“It’s at least weeks on end,” Maxwell said. “It’s more like months and in some cases years on end.”
State Senator Ben Downing and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier took part in the training session. The Democrats say they hope to at least maintain current levels of funding for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provided 16.4 million pounds of food to nearly 900 agencies in 2012.
“Well we certainly want to see this funding held at least steady if not increased especially given the fact that we’re seeing the cuts at the federal level and we’re seeing unemployment insurance for the federal level frozen,” Farley-Bouvier said. “There’s going to be more and more people in need and we can’t let that happen to our community members.”
Downing says he wants to hear the needs of the people running food pantries and — even more importantly — those showing up looking for a meal.
“The more we have those personal stories by our side while we advocate for those programs the better off we are,” said Downing.
Maxwell says the food bank will continue to work with its member agencies and their clients to develop an advocacy campaign.