News from the Food System Caucus
of the Massachusetts Legislature:
We must support Massachusetts residents impacted by food insecurity and all aspects of our agricultural community and food producers.
MA Department of Agricultural Resources
MDAR recently launched a COVID-19 resource page for consumers, which will be continually updated as the situation evolves and more resources become available. It will include the most relevant and timely information as to where consumers can access fresh, local food from farmers and producers.
MDAR’s resource page for agricultural stakeholders is also live and updated on a daily basis with information and resources regarding COVID-19.
Fortunately HIP received $2 million in supplemental funding in February that lifted the planned multi-month suspension, enabling SNAP recipients to continue to purchase locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables at open and participating Farmer’s Markets and farm-stands.
In the past several weeks, DTA has reported a significant increase in SNAP applications and modified their procedures to streamline the application process. Applicants are encouraged to follow online instructions for SNAP, as staff members are overwhelmed by the number of calls. Offices are closed for in-person visits.
The Families First Response Act provides emergency supplemental benefits to more than 50% of all SNAP households - those who were not already receiving the maximum benefit amounts. These funds will be automatically loaded on EBT cards and will be eligible to earn HIP incentives. Monthly HIP caps will remain the same, based on household size.
At this time, DTA is not considering adding new farm vendors to HIP as it takes significant time and requires in-person meetings.
Pat Baker from the Mass Law Reform Institute has offered her expertise as a resource for SNAP questions, including those on immigrant and college student eligibility and can refer individuals to local Legal Services staff. Her email is Pbaker@mlri.org.
DTA is working with DESE to administer Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), new cards that will be issued to children eligible for free or reduced-price meals including those whose families are not SNAP households. P-EBT cards will not earn HIP incentives. All students in CEP schools will receive cards, regardless of individual certification status.
The USDA approved DESE’s request to waive the requirement that school meal sites must be located in areas where at least 50% of school lunch program participants are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. This means that all school districts distributing meals during school closures related to COVID-19 and are focusing the distribution of these meals to children and teens in need of them are now eligible for USDA reimbursement.
MA Food Bank
The state’s major food bank distribution centers, the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Worcester County Food Bank, the Food Bank of Western MA, and the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, are still operating and serving local food pantries. Constituents can locate the nearest food pantries to them here. Food pantries are overwhelmed with demand, and federal and state programs are providing about half of the needed food. Food banks and partner agencies have lost almost all donations from grocery stores due to panic buying from the public and are working hard to try to source enough food to meet demand.
Project Bread Hotline
Project Bread works to fully enroll individuals in state and federal nutrition programs as well as refer callers to local food resources. The FoodSource Hotline is toll-free and is the only comprehensive statewide information and referral service in MA for people facing hunger. The Hotline is 1-800-645-8333.
CISA Emergency Farm Fund
CISA launched a zero-interest loan (up to $25,000) for farmers in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties impacted by COVID-19. The current application period has passed, but CISA expects to open a second round of applications later this spring. Find more information, including eligibility requirements, here.
Questions can be emailed to email@example.com.
CISA has also curated resources for home delivery, online ordering, and curbside pick-up here.
Fisheries & Aquaculture
Most seafood producers and distributors have lost the vast majority of their business, since most of their buyers were restaurants. Seafood is a low-margin industry and loans that put fishers in more debt are not a preferred solution. Concern that market recovery will be slow has led to a need to consider new markets and processing infrastructure for preservation. The Small Business Administration has support available to many farmers.
MA Division of Fisheries is compiling a list of where consumers can purchase local seafood.
$300M was allocated to fishermen in the CARES Act and a portion is expected to be sent to Massachusetts to provide relief for “Tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants affected by the novel coronavirus.”
Institutional sales - such as those to schools - have halted completely due to the COVID-19 crisis, and retail milk sales have slowed, as well. MA dairy farmers look to the rest of the country, where processors and producers are dumping milk, and worry the same thing may happen in MA very soon. In response to this concern, the Agri-Mark Coop, which represents family dairy farms in the Northeast, is circulating a letter to policymakers asking for a price floor to protect the industry and maintain food security. Dairy products are produced, manufactured, and delivered every day to grocery stores, yet many dairy farms are dangerously close to shutting down operations due to the current price outlook. Stabilizing dairy prices across the industry will protect dairy farms from closing and ensure our food shelves are kept stocked and this critical part of our supply chain is not lost.
MA Recycling Works provides strategic services to help businesses reduce, recover, and divert surplus food at no cost. Their hotline is 888-254-5525 and email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Access technical assistance here.
Access food waste assistance here.
Sustainable Business Network of MA
SBN works to support local and independent businesses by encouraging sales of local products. The organization advises restaurants producing emergency meals to help them source local ingredients and are encouraging people to buy from restaurants, breweries, and other retailers that are open for pick-up and delivery. See the list of locally-sourced restaurants backed by SBN in this spreadsheet, including ways customers can support them during this time. SBN’s small business assistance tool kit can be found here.
Check with local distilleries for hand sanitizer.
For those with questions about starting home gardens, visit UMass Extension.
Bulletins and guidance for Agriculture can be found here.
Central MA Grown’s local food listing can be found here.