Providing more food security goal for Lesser next year 

  • SEN. ERIC LESSER, D-Longmeadow

  • Tammy Sapowsky finishes setting up her farmstand at the South Hadley Farmers Market, Aug. 2. File photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 03, 2019

BELCHERTOWN — Even in a region of the state known for its rich agricultural history, food security and accessibility in western Massachusetts is a key issue heading into the coming legislative session, according to Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow.

“We have this incredibly vibrant agricultural economy in western Mass. It would be a true moral failing if our very own people in our community and region couldn’t experience it,” Lesser said Wednesday.

After leading a roundtable discussion with local food banks, policy experts and farmers on Dec. 14 at the Town Hall auditorium, Lesser said a main takeaway is lowering people’s barriers to accessing healthy foods and the need to promote local agriculture to the eastern half of the state.

The lack of access to healthy foods for families can be caused by a combination of things, according to roundtable participant Eric Stocker, co-owner of Squash Inc. in Belchertown. Squash is a food distributor to restaurants and retail customers.

“Younger farmers tend to be organic,” Stocker said. “Does that price people out? Probably does. Should you have organic produce or conventional produce? Conventional is the cheapest.”

Stocker said he was in favor of a progressive income tax in order to help fund state programs that help bridge the gaps that keep people from affording healthy fruits and vegetables.

One such state program, called the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), helps disadvantaged residents buy produce at farmers markets, farm stands and farm share programs.

Lesser said programs such as HIP are in “desperate need of expansion,” because it’s only available for part of the year.

“There is a lot of work to do to include diverse places and bringing in underrepresented groups into the conversation of food policy,” Lesser said.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts works to bring healthy food options to areas across Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties, according to the food bank’s communication manager Chris Wojcik.

Five years ago, the food bank started a mobile food bank that delivers fresh food to underserved populations, Wojcik said.

The food truck visits Ferry Street in Easthampton, the Hillside Village Apartments in Ware, and Southpoint Apartments in Amherst, which have been identified as “food deserts,” Wojcik said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a “part of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.”

Elsewhere in Hampshire County, it can be easy for people living in Northampton to not see neighbors who are food insecure, said Sarah Pease, program director at the Northampton Survival Center.

“One of the challenges that individuals have, if you are on lower income, is transportation,” Pease said.

Limited public transportation and having to rely on neighbors and friends for a ride to the grocery store can make getting healthy food difficult for some, Pease said.

Senior citizens are one of the populations who get hit the hardest with food insecurity, Pease said.

“There are lots of seniors who’ve worked their entire lives, and they feel like they should be able to take care of themselves,” Pease said. “It’s hard for them to see themselves as needing to come to the pantry. They are afraid to take from someone that, in their eyes, might need it more. They are very resistant to accepting help.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com