The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on food security and infrastructure in the Commonwealth. Demand at food banks has skyrocketed and local producers, who once relied on the restaurant industry, struggle to find buyers. As a member of the Food System Caucus (FSC), Rep. Joe McGonagle has been working hard to combat food insecurity and fortify the Commonwealth’s food infrastructure during this time of hardship.
The FSC focuses on three primary areas identified as priorities in the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan accepted by the Massachusetts Food Policy Council in 2015:
•Food access/insecurity – reducing waste, hunger, and food insecurity while making available more 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.
•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.
The FSC has 136 members and is the second-largest Caucus in the Legislature following the Democratic Caucus. Reps. Dan Donahue, Hannah Kane, Paul Schmid, and Sens. Jo Comerford, Anne Gobi, and Eric Lesser serve as Co-Chairs.
With the support of Rep. McGonagle, the FSC has been successful in the advancement of several priority and endorsed pieces of legislation this spring and summer. House Bill 4218, An Act regarding breakfast after the bell, was approved by the House and Senate on July 28th and is now on Governor Baker’s desk awaiting his signature. H4218 will provide expanded school breakfast options to Massachusetts students in low-income communities.
“The COVID-19 Pandemic hit us in ways we didn’t expect at first, but it became clear early on that food insecurity would need to be a major priority of the Caucus,” said McGonagle. “This caucus, led by my fantastic colleagues, has long been working on solutions for food insecurity across the Commonwealth but really stepped up to the plate as soon as the pandemic hit our communities. The different programs are creative and carefully crafted to truly help those who need it and I’m humbled to be a part of their team.
A key initiative to come out of the work of the Task Force, which the FSC has worked hard to advance, is an emphasis on the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP). HIP is administered through the MA Department of Transitional Assistance and combats food insecurity and supports local farms by providing one dollar back on SNAP EBT cards for each dollar spent on eligible produce. Thanks to the strong advocacy from organizations like the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, the Food Banks, and the Massachusetts Public Health Association, as well as broad, bipartisan, and consistent support from the Legislature, we are very pleased the Administration is expanding the program to new HIP vendors. The first round of new HIP vendors was announced in late July, and in selecting the 39 new vendors, the Administration focused on low-access areas, paying particular attention to communities of color and older adults- two groups that have been especially impacted by the pandemic. $5M in additional funds has been allocated to support the program’s continued expansion.
The Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program (FSIG) was also created out of the Task Force and is backed by the FSC. The first round of FSIG awards was recently announced, including $3M in grant money distributed to various projects that will reduce food insecurity and fortify the Commonwealth’s food infrastructure. The $3M is the first round of funding to come out of the total $36M program. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis until September 15th. The FSC is also hyper-focused on helping the seafood industry, which has been hit extra hard by the pandemic due to its reliance on restaurant buyers. With restaurants closed or operating at limited capacity, the Commonwealth’s seafood industry has lost a significant portion of its business. FSC Co-Chairs Representative Kane and Senator Comerford and FSC members Senator Bruce Tarr and Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante have worked closely with Lieutenant Governor Polito and the Administration over the past few months to remedy this issue. The soon-to-launch MDAR MassGrown Exchange Platform is currently being developed and will serve as a connection between local producers/suppliers such as fisheries and buyers, including food banks. The Seafood Marketing Program has also been launched and supports local projects that raise demand for local seafood by administering grants.