US Representative Ayanna Pressley listens to testimony. PHOTO BANNER
Sometime in August 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Denise Lauers ran out of savings and began looking for help to feed herself and her two sons.
A longtime Somerville resident and single mother, Lauers said she lost about 80% of the income she earned from her small cleaning business after business dried up during the pandemic. Even though her children were receiving child support as well as $80 a month in federal child support, she continued to struggle.
“How much can you survive on $80 a month? she said, pointing to her own lack of eligibility for federal aid due to her immigration status and income.
Lauers was one of more than 25 parents and food safety advocates who offered testimonials and recommendations during a public conversation on food insecurity led by U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley in East Boston on Monday. Free school meals and integrating food insecurity screenings into public health systems emerged as popular solutions.
The conversation comes as President Joe Biden’s administration prepares to convene a conference on hunger, nutrition and health in September. It will be the first such conversation since 1969, when then-President Richard M. Nixon hosted a similar event that resulted in hundreds of policy recommendations to reduce hunger.
“To be honest, it’s by God’s mercy that my kids never went to bed hungry,” Lauers said in tears, pointing to high grocery prices. “We have a little over [federal] advantages, but it is still not enough.
The lawyers gave evidence, also saying that universally free school meals would ensure that even children from struggling families could eat.
“We want the whole country, or at least here in Massachusetts, to ensure that all children can count on free school lunches,” said Erin McAleer, CEO of the nonprofit Project Bread, based in East Boston. “We know universalism eliminates stigma, cuts costs and feeds children.”
McAleer says one in five families with children in Massachusetts struggle to afford enough to eat. Before the pandemic, it was about half of that – at 9%.
The share of food-insecure families peaked in 2020, then began to decline as pandemic food assistance and other programs scaled up. But many programs have been cut, McAleer said, leading to a resurgence of food insecurity, especially among people of color.
“When you also break those numbers down by race and ethnicity, what we find is that more than 33% of black, Latino, and multiracial households in Massachusetts experience food insecurity. … So we are still in crisis here.
Officials from Project Bread and other organizations have also proposed adding screening tests for food insecurity to patient admission procedures at health facilities.
Greg Wilmot, president of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, said in 2020 his staff began asking patients about food insecurity and offering things like grocery gift cards, help with purchase of refrigerators and kitchen utensils and assistance with applications for federal food assistance to people in need. .
“Community-informed, family-centered, person-centered solutions are what this problem is going to require,” he said.
Lauers said she believes federal food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program formerly known as food stamps, should also be universal rather than income-based.
“Because if you’re going to apply for [SNAP]it’s not fun,” she said.
Many people who have shared personal stories of struggle have indicated that they are living in the country illegally, which Pressley says needs to be addressed directly.
“When we talk about universal access, it means not denying anyone,” she told reporters. “No one should be left behind, no one should go hungry in our country’s richest nation.”
Asked about her congressional colleagues’ appetite for solving hunger, particularly among those related to immigration and undocumented status issues, Pressley said she would continue to address the issue with urgency.
“Unfortunately – and it doesn’t do me any good to say this because I serve in government – more often than not government doesn’t lead, it responds,” she said. “I don’t make predictions about people, I just have to continue to focus on the lived experiences of those I represent and fight to have their most basic needs met.”
Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.