Today in Pittsfield, members of the Berkshire state delegation reflected on their participation in a national campaign to raise awareness for hunger.
All of the lawmakers in the all-Democrat Berkshire delegation, including Representatives Gailanne Cariddi of North Adams, Paul Mark of Peru, Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, William “Smitty” Pignatelli of Lenox, and State Senator Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield, ended their seven-day SNAP challenge Monday.
Each lawmaker survived on food bought only with a week’s allowance of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits for one person - $31.50. In addition to raising awareness about hunger in Western Massachusetts, the lawmakers also sought to draw attention to the debate over the Farm Bill in Washington. In June, the House of Representatives rejected a Farm Bill that sought to make substantial cuts to the SNAP program. An updated version was passed last week by House Republicans that removed the changes to SNAP but received no support from Democrats.
State Senator Benjamin Downing said that the issue is particularly important for Western Massachusetts. Berkshire and Franklin Counties have the two highest per-capita number of farms in the state.
"It's a part of the economy here, it's a part of our culture, part of our communities," said Downing. "But the cost of a good Farm Bill for the United States shouldn't be leaving 47 million people who need SNAP benefits [...] behind."
Representative Paul Mark said that while undertaking the challenge, which amounted to a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, he received emails and messages from his constituents and hopes that the challenge brought the issue of hunger forward.
"It definitely got attention and I think I brought the proper attention to the issue," said Mark. "We weren't doing this to show how we're sacrificing, we were doing this to show how poverty is an issue, rural poverty is especially an issue, and we need to make sure people think about that before they make cuts to programs like this."
Mark, who said he grew up in poverty, added the challenge also reminded him of how often the working poor with busy lives can get left behind.
Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier said that at the outset of the challenge, while on a shopping trip to a Big Y supermarket in Pittsfield, she realized the difficulty in buying fresh produce and healthy foods on such a slim budget. The Democrat said that her experience made her begin to think about the ways the state government can further assist SNAP beneficiaries.
"Maybe we need to create programs where nutrition counseling is a part of receiving SNAP benefits," said Farley-Bouvier.
She suggested that more investments be made to the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance to aid caseworkers for SNAP beneficiaries. Farley-Bouvier said that in her district, some caseworkers are tasked to manage the benefits for up to 1,000 individuals.
“We have to have more caseworkers and the caseworkers need to be focusing on how we really help people out of poverty," said Farley-Bouvier. "Right now all we're doing is keeping people in poverty because it's just about getting them their checks on time."
Representative Gail Cariddi could not attend the press conference, nor could Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli. A staff member from Pignatelli’s office described how the Representative had to make decisions about making the food bought with the $31 last through the week, which included watering down orange juice.
Senator Downing offered his thoughts on what all levels of government should focus on to reduce hunger in the future.
"That's partnerships between government and non-profits at the local level. Partnerships between those non-profits, government, and our grocery stores, our larger food suppliers, our local agriculture, and our farmers," said Downing. "If we bring that broad cross-section together along with our anti-poverty agencies, as well as making it a priority at every level of government - that's what's going to reduce hunger."