Seneca Baldi ‘26
The McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture hosted a panel on Monday afternoon convening on hunger in America as a precursor to the White House’s second ever Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which took place on Wednesday. “Building the Political Will & Moral Courage to End Hunger in America” focused primarily on food insecurity in the United States and the lack of current political will to end the problem, despite adequate resources.
Members of the Holy Cross panel included Erin McAleer, President and CEO of Project Bread, and Holy Cross alumna. The non-profit provides reliable sources of food and works on changing policy to make food accessible for all. Jean McMurray, the Executive Director of the Worcester County Food Bank, which partners with 115 different organizations and serves 75,000 people across the county, also attended. As did Winton Pitcoff, the Director of the MA Food System Collaborative, which provides resources and support for MA farmers, the economy and environment in relation to food and farming, and to make food more accessible for Massachusetts residents. U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern came too, a democrat from Massachusetts’s 2nd District who advocates for the end of food insecurity and hunger in the United States. Finally, one of our very own Holy Cross first-year students, Phoebe Wong, who did service for FoodCorps this past summer, and worked to implement nutrition and prioritize public health in East Hartford Public Schools. Phoebe accompanied Congressman McGovern at the White House on Wednesday as a member of the panel titled, “Partnerships Between Farms and Communities to Increase Access to Local Foods.”
The last national conference on this topic occurred in 1969, which was successful in creating important programs such as WIC – Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – originally known as Food Stamps, increasing the focus on childhood nutrition, and implementing food guidelines and labels. Congressman McGovern states that starting in the 1980s, we’ve backslid: “We’re now gathered in a time where close to 40 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” He highlighted food apartheids particularly, and that as the richest country in the world, he is “ashamed” of the amount of people who go hungry in the United States “as a US Congressman” and “as an American.”
The main point among panel members is that food insecurity in the U.S. is a political problem. Each panelist highlighted the amount of food produced, infrastructure available, and knowledge on the topics in the U.S. Now, they argue, it will take political will to make a difference.
So why does food insecurity exist if these resources are available? Erin McAleer shared her own personal experience of becoming food insecure overnight when her mom left an abusive marriage. With a smaller income, her mother could no longer afford to feed her children. She explains that “families across this state and across the country are making tradeoffs” in terms of childcare, electricity, other costs, and eating. Plainly, it is becoming unaffordable. She also says that unlike during WWII, employment is no longer the ticket out of poverty. Jean McMurray furthered her point by mentioning the many new members of the Worcester County Food Pantry who have recently started coming as a result of inflation, since the cost of food is now only affordable with a second job.
In addition to the cost, food waste is a major problem when it comes to food insecurity. Congressman McGovern stated that 40% of the food grown in the U.S. each year is thrown away, which Jean McMurray cited as millions of pounds. The Congressman called attention to utilizing this food rather than throwing it away, but did not describe how to do that.
Not only is hunger an issue, but so is access to nutritious foods. The 1933 New Deal provided subsidies for corn, soy, and sugar– all of which are ingredients in highly processed foods. Although the national government claims they want healthy foods, Winton Pitcoff says they fund cheaper, more processed foods. Low income diets cannot afford fresh produce or foods children may not eat that end up being thrown away, says Erin McAleer.
A main debate on the topic of food insecurity is the success of private charities, which brings into question the necessity of action within the federal government. As the Director of the Worcester County Food Pantry, Jean McMurray’s personal experiences spoke to the importance of federal aid. She states that 40 to 45 years ago, the charities sprouted as an emergency system to provide temporary aid. From there, food pantries became a chronic need. Studies during the 2009 recession showed that most people needed food pantries to get through the month. For her, “hunger is a solvable problem.” It is channeling power to longer term systemic change that will make this difference. She emphasized that nonprofits can not do this work all alone. And, she says, investing in people leads to better outcomes in school, better work productivity, better public health, and an overall better economy.
But for now, with 26% of families labeled food insecure just in Massachusetts, Erin McAleer labels this a “crisis”. Thanks to a recent extension of Covid policies in the state, every child will continue to have access to two free meals a day at school. That is a systemic solution that all states could adopt. Providing one meal a day for your children, Erin says, is an enormously different task than providing three.
In terms of political action, Congress McGovern did not lay out a specific plan, however he did state that it takes the interaction between all departments of the government to solve this problem. Increasing transportation to food, especially in areas like food apartheids, or lowering utility costs that cut into food budgets, are all aspects that can help make less people hungry.
He also stressed the importance of healthy incentive programs in schools. Phoebe Wong supported this idea by urging every school to get a food educator, which would teach students where their food comes from. Jean McMurray stated that gaining access to healthier foods could be an enormous opportunity for local farmers, hospitals, schools, and other public businesses.
So why is food insecurity a political issue? Congressman McGovern believes that by holding elected officials accountable – like those who sign bills to cut SNAP and small or medium sized farmers’ funding – meaningful change can be made. He says that hunger cannot wait, and that there “ought to be an outcry… We ought to be ashamed.” McGovern believes it is our job to make this change, as those who are going hungry do not have time to petition their legislators. The panelists all agreed that now is the time to bring food insecurity and hunger to the forefront of politics. Like Phoebe Wang stated, “food is a fundamental human right… it’s not something we can put off.”