How we're fighting our Western Mass. 'hunger epidemic'
Every morning, a truck pulls up to Atlas Farm in Deerfield. It gets loaded up with fresh vegetables, and heads to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
Another Western Mass farm, Our Family Farm in Greenfield, provides fresh milk to food banks across the state.
This partnership, the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), has supported our local farmers, linked diverse communities like Hatfield and Springfield together -- and helped feed thousands of our neighbors who go hungry every month.
"Hunger is a hidden epidemic in this country," Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, has said.
And he's right.
But the problem is visible if you look hard enough here in Western Mass. The average number of people in Hampden County seeking extra food each month because they can't afford enough is more than 44,000. In Hampshire County, it is more than 15,000, according to data from the Food Bank of Western Mass.
A third of these are children.
In addition to children, another vulnerable group is the elderly, many of whom rely on Meals on Wheels, a federal food delivery program. Cuts to this program in the federal budget compound our region's hunger epidemic -- and make it that much more urgent for Massachusetts to fill the gap for our families.
That is why fighting hunger is so important to me.
Earlier this year, Rep. Peter Kocot and I sponsored budget amendments in the House and Senate to increase funding for MEFAP and provide two million more meals than last year. MEFAP is responsible for a fourth of the food that is distributed by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, serving as both a vital source of income for our local farmers and a lifeline to the hungry and homeless in Massachusetts.
I am also cosponsoring a bill introduced by Sen. Sal DiDomenico to close the "SNAP gap." Many who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Massachusetts do not know they are eligible, and either go hungry or go to soup kitchens instead of receiving the help they need to pay for groceries.
This legislation would create a common application so that those applying for MassHealth could at the same time apply for the nutrition assistance they need.
Fortunately, there is plenty you can do in addition to the work being done in our state Legislature.
Start a food drive at work. Donate or volunteer for Lorraine's Soup Kitchen in Chicopee or Rachel's Table in Springfield. Bring clothes and food to the Springfield Rescue Mission.
On Monday, Nov. 20, come participate in the eighth annual "Monte's March," a community walk through Springfield, Chicopee and up to Northampton to raise money and awareness for tackling food insecurity in our region.
We have an obligation to help those who need help the most -- and it is easier than you think, once you get started.
This Thanksgiving, as we prepare to enjoy a meal with loved ones, I hope you'll spare a thought for those who need a meal themselves -- and I hope you'll spare some food for them, too.
State Sen. Eric P. Lesser is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.