Hunger advocates and families are calling for comprehensive school meals and food insecurity checks

Sometime in August 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Denise Lauers depleted her savings and started looking for help feeding herself and her two sons.

Lowes, a longtime Somerville resident and single mother, said she lost about 80 percent of the income she earned from her small cleaning business after her business dried up due to the pandemic. Although her children were receiving child support payments along with $80 a month in federal food aid, she continued to struggle.

How much can you live on $80 a month? She said, citing her ineligibility for federal assistance because of her immigrant status and income.

Lauers was one of about 25 parents and food security advocates who offered testimonies and recommendations at a public conversation on food insecurity led by U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley in East Boston on Monday. Making school meals free and integrating food insecurity checks into public health care systems have emerged as common solutions.

The conversation comes as President Joe Biden’s administration prepares to hold a conference on hunger, nutrition and health in September. It would be the first such conversation since 1969, when then-President Richard Nixon convened a similar event that resulted in hundreds of policy recommendations to reduce hunger.

“Honestly, thanks to God, my kids have never gone to bed hungry,” Laures said in tears, noting the soaring groceries prices. “We have a little [federal] benefits, but it is still not enough. ”

Human rights advocates testified, also saying that free school meals globally would ensure that even children from struggling families could eat.

“We want nationwide, or at least here in Massachusetts, to make sure all kids can count on free school meals,” said Erin McClear, CEO of the nonprofit Anti-Hunger Baking Project based in East Boston. “We know that inclusivity breaks down stigma, lowers costs, and nurtures children.”

McAleer says one in five families with children in Massachusetts struggles to find enough food. Before the pandemic, it was about half that — 9 percent.

The share of food insecure households peaked in 2020, and then began to decline with the increase in food aid for the pandemic and other programmes. But McAleer said many programs have been curtailed, leading to a resurgence of food insecurity, particularly among people of color.

“When you also break down these numbers by race and ethnicity, what we see is that more than 33 percent of black, Latino and multiracial families in Massachusetts are food insecure. … So, we’re still in a big crisis here.”

Officials with Project Bread and other organizations have also suggested adding food insecurity checks to patient intake procedures in health care facilities.

In 2020, his staff began asking patients about food insecurity and offering things like grocery story gift cards, buying help for refrigerators and cooking utensils and helping with federal food assistance apps for those in need, said Greg Wilmot, president of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.

“Community-informed, family-centered, person-centered solutions are what this cause requires,” he said.

Lowers said she believes federal food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps, should also be inclusive and not income-based.

“Because if you go to place an order [SNAP]She said.

Several people who shared personal stories of the struggle indicated that they were living in the country illegally, which Presley said needed to be addressed directly.

“When we talk about universal access, it means no one is being denied,” she told reporters. “No one should be left behind, and no one in the richest country in our country should go hungry.”

When asked about her congressional colleagues’ desire to solve the problem of hunger, particularly among those entangled with issues of immigration and undocumented status, Presley said she would continue to address the issue expeditiously.

“Unfortunately – and I’m not happy to say this because I serve in government – too often, government doesn’t lead, it responds,” she said. “I don’t predict people, I just have to stay focused on the lived experiences of those I represent and fight for their most basic needs.”

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