Candidate for State Representative of the 7th Hampden District Aaron Saunders answered our questions on his plans for addressing food insecurity and its underlying causes.
In Massachusetts, 37% of public college and university students are food insecure.
Assistance like SNAP benefits and local community resources are underutilized by these students.
What do you see as some of the solutions to ensuring college students don’t go
The efficient utilization of the $3.7M in ARPA funding for college student food security is a great first step. This is best realized through adoption of H.4697 in conjunction with dedicated annual funding for college food insecurity grants. In a broader sense, our continued work to de-stigmatize benefits like SNAP and resources like food pantries will help those students struggling with food security feel safer and more comfortable meeting basic nutritional needs.
For low-income families, a small pay increase could mean the loss of crucial benefits like childcare vouchers, SNAP benefits, and housing vouchers. These families often pass up pay increases to ensure they qualify for public assistance, thus keeping the families on low-incomes and continuing their reliance on public support.
How will you ensure the Commonwealth serves these families so that they can support their households now and in the future?
Supporting efforts like Senator Lesser’s Cliff Effect Pilot Program is central to ensuring that families are not choosing between professional growth and basic necessities of life like adequate food and housing. We must be increasingly aware of this impact with both the increases in minimum wage as well as with the costs of food and housing in particular increasing so steeply over the last year.
Lack of access to transportation is one of the major causes of food insecurity. We know that public transportation in Western Massachusetts is inadequate and chronically underfunded.
In what ways would you like to see public transportation in our region improved?
What do you envision for the future of Massachusetts transit and how will you incorporate climate into your transportation policies?
Public transit is most successful when it is right-sized and accessible to our communities. The chronic underfunding of our RTAs has left many in Western Mass without any public transit options and many who live in service areas face hours of time spent waiting for transfers or a route that may run only several times per day. In particular for our rural and suburban communities in Western Mass, funding more frequent and more accessible smaller vehicle trips, exploring public/private partnerships for areas difficult for traditional RTAs to service, and demanding paratransit parity with “The Ride” offered MBTA service area will move the needle for our region.
Providing multi-modal transit opportunities and incenting EV’s is the backbone of our regional transit future. While larger, more densely populated cities will likely be able to take greatest advantage of mass transit options, we will need to be careful to understand the needs and limitations of applying a one-size-fits-all transit policy when it comes to our rural and suburban communities that do not have access to a robust bus system, subways, or commuter rail.
What are your policy priorities and how will they serve those facing food insecurity and other basic needs issues?
Poverty in our rural and suburban communities is so often hidden in municipalities assumed to be universally “wealthy.” People in these communities struggling with housing stability, food security, and the many other challenges of chronic poverty often lack access to the resources that are available due to geographical distance or a community’s aggregate demographics precluding supports from being offered. I will work to ensure equitable access to services and resources regardless of what zip code a person struggling with food security lives in.
Why does food insecurity exist in our Commonwealth and what other underlying issues do hungry people face?
This is a big question that has many facets. Poverty, underemployment, food deserts, and recently rising food costs are all major factors that lead to food insecurity. The underlying issues are just as various, but include housing instability, transportation challenges, health and ability considerations, justice system involvement to name a few. Food insecurity is one of the glaring, and frankly unacceptable, outcomes of these social determinants.
The cost of living in Western Massachusetts is on the rise along with the rest of the Commonwealth. What will you do to serve the rising basic needs of unhoused people?
I will work towards ensuring a path towards permanent housing with appropriate supports for the unhoused folks living in our communities. This effort is not simply rental vouchers, but is dependent on identifying the drivers of chronic and intermittent homelessness, whether it be challenges with mental health or substance abuse disorder; justice system involvement; or an inability to connect unhoused people with available resources. I believe we need to examine and eliminate the perils of the cliff effect on housing supports (as well as in other areas) and provide a clear and accessible path to self-sustenance.
It has become increasingly clear how many people are living on the edge–perhaps just one illness, car accident, or job loss away from falling into poverty, and this has only increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What would you propose be done to stabilize individuals and families so people would no longer live so close to the edge of financial catastrophe?
I believe a comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that state policy – regardless of area – does not put an undue burden on working class families. Too often well intentioned policy as a disproportionate financial impact on working people which only leaves them closer to that point where one accident or unforeseen cost can lead to devastating consequences. The Commonwealth spends a tremendous amount to assist working people with public transit costs, but for those working families who have little if any access to public transit for their needs, rising transportation related costs go unaddressed.
What connection do you see between racial health disparities, hunger, and other barriers to resources? What are some policy solutions that you would push for to increase the ability of BIPOC individuals to live healthy lives?
These items are entirely interrelated. Food insecurity and poorer health outcomes are interdependent; a lack of access to fresh food will lead to health challenges that have proven to be more prevalent in BIPOC communities; cities that are hotter and have less healthy air to breath lead to higher rates of asthma and other health issues. When this is combined with challenges to accessing consistent care, language barriers, among other challenges it is sadly unsurprising that we see these types of disparities. In terms of policy solutions, I believe we need to address the social determinants of health and invest in stabilization efforts whether it is window unit air conditioners and dehumidifiers for people living in EJ communities, to the larger, more ambitious challenges of breaking the cycle of generational poverty through supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship in communities of color. We should continue to build on some of the great work that the legislature has undertaken including continued funding of Universal School Meals, supporting programs like Summer Eats, and supporting food banks to make investments in their own organizations to ensure that services are gated by geography.
Why are you running for this office and what do you want voters to know about you?
Growing up, my father was a family therapist. Early in my life he was diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of Multiple Sclerosis. Unable to walk or work by the time I was ten, this left my mother to support the family. She was an educator and regularly took on a second job to make ends meet. We were, as a previous question reference, on the edge. I saw first hand how health care costs can lead to financial ruin and how important my mom’s union was in ensuring that our family got the health care that stood between my family falling off that financial cliff. I know that there are far too many families in a similar position today and I am running to ensure that the Commonwealth does what it can do to ensure that folks in Western Mass are not conscripted to poverty because of one mishap or costly medical diagnosis. I’m running to help build a regional economy that can provide the types of employment opportunities that keep young families in the region and provide the types of wages and benefits that allow people to be healthy, housed, and free from hunger. I’m running because I believe we need to refocus our public health efforts on the growing epidemic of overdose deaths that tear families and communities apart. I’m running because we must fortify our support of every woman’s right to reproductive health at a time where these fundamental rights are under attack. I’m running because we have an urgent need and responsibility to transition to renewable, non-carbon emitting energy and an obligation to protect our open spaces, forests, and waterways. I’m running because now more than ever our public education system, from pre-K to Higher Ed needs champions to push back against those who are actively seeking to undermine our children’s education. Finally, I’m running because Western Massachusetts needs effective representation so that our region receives its fair share of resources from the Commonwealth.