Sen. Lesser Announces Formation of Massachusetts Legislature's Food System Caucus

Caucus Will Advocate for State’s Agricultural Sector and Programs to Provide Healthy, Locally-Grown Food to Vulnerable Families

BOSTON — Senator Eric P. Lesser joined with House and Senate colleagues at the start of the legislative session to form the Massachusetts Legislature’s Food System Caucus. Sen. Lesser will serve as Co-Chair of the bi-cameral, bi-partisan caucus, which counts nearly one-third of the entire Legislature as members.

Other Western Mass. members of the Caucus include fellow Co-Chairs Sens. Anne Gobi and Jo Comerford, and Caucus members Reps. Brian Ashe, Natalie Blais, Dan Carey, Mindy Domb, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Paul Mark, Smitty Pignatelli, Angelo Puppolo, Lindsay Sabadosa, Aaron Vega and Sens. Adam Hinds and James Welch.

Founded with the mission to support and grow the local food system in the Commonwealth, the Food System Caucus will focus on three primary areas, which were identified as priorities in the Commonwealth’s adopted 2015 Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan:

  • Economic development: recognizing the significant impact to local, regional and state economies, supporting the increase of production, sales and consumption of Massachusetts grown food and creating jobs and improving wages in food and farming.

  • Food access/insecurity: reducing waste, hunger and food insecurity while making available fresh, healthy food to everyone who lives in the Commonwealth.

  • Farmland: protecting the land and resources necessary to produce food, while maximizing the environmental benefits of agriculture and fishing, and the preservation of agricultural land.

United by the importance of advancing the Commonwealth’s local food system and a shared commitment to that mission, the Caucus includes members from every region of Massachusetts, with representation from the North Shore to the Berkshires and Worcester County to the Outer Cape. Together, the Food System Caucus will seek to advance policies and practices in Massachusetts which tackle hunger and reduce food waste, preserve land and natural resources while also maximizing the environmental benefits of agriculture, and promote Massachusetts-produced food and the economic development of the state’s food sector.

In addition, the key external partner to the Caucus is Winton Pitcoff, Director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, who will help ensure the Caucus priorities are aligned with and supportive of the Local Food Action Plan and that the Caucus priorities are disseminated to advocates and advocacy organizations for support across the Commonwealth.

The impact of the food system in Massachusetts is significant:

  • About 1 in 10 workers in MA (426,000) are employed in the food system.

  • The food system accounts for about 4.5% of all economic activity in the state.

  • MA residents spend about $32 billion on food each year.

  • Food processing revenue is about 10% of the states manufacturing revenue.

  • There are 41,000 food businesses in MA and approximately 7,800 farms

“Our farms are an integral part of the Western Mass economy, which is one reason why we must continue to support programs like MEFAP, which not only helps our residents in need but also bolsters our local farms. We also need to do more to get fresh, locally-grown food in our homes and our schools, which is why I introduced a bill to provide grants for farm-to-school programs that will promote healthy school lunches while strengthening our state’s agricultural economy,” said Sen. Eric P. Lesser.

The Food System Caucus has designated the below six pieces of legislation as Caucus priority bills for the 191st General Court:

Food access/insecurity:

  • H145/S48 An Act relative to an agricultural healthy incentives program (Rep. Mark & Sen. Gobi)

  • H1475/S869 An Act encouraging the donation of food to persons in need (Rep. Kane & Sen. Comerford)

  • H591/S267 An Act regarding breakfast after the bell (Rep. Vega & Sen. DiDomenico)

Farmland:

  • H873 An Act to promote healthy soils and agricultural innovation in the Commonwealth  (Rep. Schmid & Sen. Comerford)

  • S482 An Act regarding a farmland protection and viability plan (Sen. Gobi)

Economic Development:

  • S301 An Act establishing farm to school grants to promote healthy eating and strengthen the agricultural economy (Sen. Lesser)

In addition to legislative priorities, the Caucus will advocate for increased funding in the state budget for line-items that advance the mission. At the beginning of March, the Food System Caucus distributed a letter signed by 76 Representatives and delivered to House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz requesting $8.5 million in funding for the state’s Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) in Fiscal Year 2020.

Founded in late 2017, HIP supports local farms and the Commonwealth’s agricultural economy while also improving public health outcomes by providing vulnerable families and individuals with access to otherwise unaffordable fresh, healthy and local fruits and vegetables via SNAP incentives. To date, the Healthy Incentives Program has yielded $9 million in sales for over 200 farms across the Commonwealth and provided over 55,000 families and individuals with HIP incentives, demonstrating a cost-effective public-private partnership.

With the support of advocacy organizations and stakeholder partners, the Food System Caucus will continue to champion innovative, impactful and effective policies to advance the Massachusetts food system, to the benefit of residents and businesses in each of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns.

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Eric Lesser