Candidates for State Representative of the 8th Hampden District Shirley Arriaga and Joel McAuliffe answered our questions on their plans for addressing food insecurity and its underlying causes.

Hunger on College Campuses

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
hungry?

Shirley Arriaga

College dining typically costs extra and is foregone by those looking to save on expenses. Public Higher Education institutions sometimes provide dining scholarships, which require an additional application and can be denied for tuition/fee bill non-payment. All public higher education institutions, 2 and 4 years, should allow state scholarships and grants to be used to cover the cost of these plans.

Additionally, while attending Springfield Technical Community College as a commuter student, I noticed that many students bought meals on the go, often unaffordable and unhealthy. Expanding food access on campus for commuting students would greatly benefit those struggling with food insecurity. Notably, Holyoke Community College’s food pantry is a great example of this. Making food accessible to students who may be commuting on public transit or working will lessen the burden on students and in turn improve school attendance and minimize food insecurity.

Joel McAuliffe

This is an issue I worked on when I worked in the Senate. We secured an earmark for the Community Foundation of Western Mass to provide assistance for college students during the pandemic. The reality is that this issue is more common than most people appreciate and the Commonwealth should be providing more funding to state colleges and universities to ensure that there are resources available to students who need it. We already know that the state college and university system is woefully underfunded so there are so many other issues that need to be dealt with, but providing additional funding to address food insecurity amongst college students is critical. There should also be a focus on ensuring students have access to food during breaks and vacations. Some colleges and universities allow students to stay on campus during breaks and vacations, but those are the time periods during which food insecurity becomes dire. If students have access to continued housing on campus, and along with that food access either through the college’s dining program or SNAP or community resources, we can reduce that 37% figure.

The Cliff Effect

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?

Shirley Arriaga

The cliff effect can be prevented by reducing the current income threshold and establishing progressive benefit distribution to ensure families do not lose all benefits from a small increase. Lowering the current threshold counteracts the imbalance in inflation and minimum wages that do not match the needed living wage. A progressive benefits system allows families to grow their financial assets while meeting their current financial needs. This can be managed through self-reporting systems and audits currently done. The commonwealth should aim to help build financial security so that the reliance on public assistance can be diminished.

Joel McAuliffe

This is another issue I was proud to work on during my time in the Senate – and a pilot program is on the cusp of happening if we can get the legislation across the line this year. We shouldn’t be putting families in the position of having to choose between advancing themselves or losing their benefits, especially when it almost always means a dramatic decrease in benefits that is not compensated by their slightly improved wages. The pilot program should be passed as soon as possible and then widely implemented for Massachusetts families.

Transportation

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?

Shirley Arriaga

I will prioritize the creation of jobs in order to improve quality of life. I will advocate for road repairs, West-East rail service, and expand PVTA routes in Chicopee. Chicopee is a food desert and thus improving connective, reliable, and time.

The state must invest more state dollars in public transit statewide, but especially in Western Massachusetts. Bus rapid transit lanes on the highways connected to local bus lines would reduce reliance on cars while connecting Chicopee with other communities. Which in turn will boost economic opportunities and reduce car pollution.

Joel McAuliffe

In the immediate future we need to fully fund the PVTA and RTA’s because that is the direct line of transportation for people in our communities. The RTA’s provide affordable transportation to and from work – and in many cases to grocery stores whereas there are many food deserts in communities across Chicopee and our region.

Big picture wise, the single biggest emitter of carbon in our state is gas powered vehicles. We have been working to transition the state and municipal fleet of vehicles to electric cars. We have installed charging stations across the state and provided incentives to buy electric vehicles. Aside from that, the best way to get gas cars off the road? Build East-West rail that will connect Pittsfield to Boston and provide economical travel to millions of Baystaters without needing to drive their cars. This will take thousands of cars off the road and have a significant impact on our climate efforts.

Food Insecurity and its Underlying Causes

What are your policy priorities and how will they serve those facing food insecurity and other basic needs issues?

Shirley Arriaga

Education is a key priority of mine, which is linked to food insecurity. As a student and then educator in the Chicopee Schools, I saw firsthand the impact free meals had on the students and how it improved their performance and attitude.

Notably, I would suggest studying Cambridge’s weekend backpack program that provides lunches to at-need families, in order to obtain a better understanding of the benefits to students across the Commonwealth.

Women and Girls issues are another key priority of mine, and a demographic more likely to suffer from food insecurity due to economic injustice, access, coercion, and more. Food insecurity can lead to health complications, including low childbirth and reproductive issues. Addressing food insecurity would greatly benefit women and girls across Massachusetts.

Joel McAuliffe

I’m focused on maintaining pandemic level assistance to people in need because the pandemic exposed where we have so many cracks in our system. Addressing the cliff effect is a top policy priority for me – because I grew up in a family impacted by it and I know so many others who did the same. In Chicopee, we need to address our food desert problems in the city and make food sources more accessible to people in our downtown and Willimansett. I am also a big believer in the HIP program that provides an incentive for people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. It not only encourages healthy eating – but it supports our local farmers like McKinstry Farm in Chicopee.

Why does food insecurity exist in our Commonwealth and what other underlying issues do hungry people face?

Shirley Arriaga

Beyond expanding food access in our educational institutions, ensuring food is accessible and affordable in stores is crucial. Western Massachusetts is uniquely situated to provide farm fresh food to residents of Gateway Cities like Chicopee. Investing financially and energy credits for farms will expand their ability to provide these foods, especially considering the impact of climate change on food sources and growth. Farmers’ markets allow for food benefit use, but ensuring those market times and locations are easy to attend is paramount.

Joel McAuliffe

Food insecurity exists because of the lack of access and support for those in need. Whether it be not living near a grocery store or being impacted by the cliff effect, these are just a few examples. The pandemic forced us to address a lot of these inequities and in turn forced more funding into areas to address them. We need to be focused on making sure that funding, which has made a big impact, does not disappear the further we get from the height of the pandemic.

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?

Shirley Arriaga

The average home price in Chicopee is now $300,000, with a $52,000 median family household income. Expanding industry and business to Chicopee while providing a living wage and reducing property taxes address one part of the conversation. Generational wealth enables individuals access to housing without down payments. Expanding grants for first-time homeowners and fixing housing zones to allow for multiple generational houses will also ease upfront costs for housing. As a society we should be pushing for homeownership education and look at capping rent. Many individuals cannot afford to live in our district and are working full time. The cost of inflammation and the increase in affordable housing keeps increasing. We must act now before the housing crisis worsens. Looking into developing unused sites and turning them into affordable housing apartments/ condos is a must.

Joel McAuliffe

We need to build more affordable housing, period. I have been involved with three major economic development bills that included funding to incentivize affordable housing projects. From HDIP to a newer provision to encourage transit oriented development (East-West rail anybody?) we need to make concrete investments to build more housing that people can afford. Changes to zoning laws that we have made over the last few years will be helpful to this as well, but we cannot move fast enough. Particular to Chicopee, the quickest thing we can do to provide affordable housing is to work closely with our partners at the Valley Opportunity Council and also work to get the mill and uniroyal projects moving again.

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?

Shirley Arriaga

We need to invest in education so that families and individuals can compete for better paying jobs. Offering free courses at our community colleges, can provide trade and certifications and help families in the long run. We should concentrate on how to fix this issue long term and in the meantime provide assistance to the families who are failing to make ends meet due to the cost of inflation.

Joel McAuliffe

There is no simple answer to this question. The pandemic taught us a lot, some of which we already knew, but highlighted the needs for other policymakers to see. We need to maintain funding levels for programs provided by agencies like Wayfinders and the VOC. We need to make sure pandemic nutritional assistance programs don’t disappear. During the pandemic, thanks to a lot of these programs we made huge dents in addressing the need. For instance, the federal child tax credit and other programs helped cut child poverty in half, but then was let to expire. We understand the root causes and what has worked to address them – and now we need to be deliberate about continuing that work.

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?

Shirley Arriaga

I will use a racial justice lens in every decision I make as an elected official, and believe all oppression is connected. BIPOC communities are the hardest impacted by a lack of government investments. My goal is to create a more equitable district and Commonwealth by calling out policies that fail to account for racial justice, such as inequitable healthcare, food, and educational opportunities. I will be transparent in my goals and fight to ensure everyone has equal access to housing, health care, education, transportation, jobs, and every other aspect of society. Our government is supposed to work for everyone, but too often, it leaves people behind because of policies that do not consider racial justice. I will do everything in my power to change that.

Joel McAuliffe

Racial disparities are deeply rooted in policy and have been for a very long time. That is why in Chicopee I authored legislation on the City Council that declared racism a public health crisis, because that is what it is. Health is directly connected to quality of life. Housing, food security, etc all contribute to one’s health and the BIPOC community has been disproportionately affected for a long time. To improve outcomes we have to be deliberate about policy – that means solving food insecurity through a lot of the programs we talked about so far, like HIP & SNAP. We must address the cliff effect to allow people to advance themselves while not being worried about losing the life saving assistance they need, and we need to make sure people have safe and affordable housing.

General

Why are you running for this office and what do you want voters to know about you?

Shirley Arriaga

I am running for office for the same reason I enlisted in the United States Air Force twelve years ago, out of a sense of duty to my community. My separation from the military has given me the opportunity to advocate and be part of the change here at home. I’m running for State Representative to bring Chicopee’s voice to the State House. Chicopee’s power is its people, and their lived experiences need amplification for change. Our resilient community holds many innovative policy solutions which will ensure a long thriving community.

As a Veteran and current educator, I see the need for change. It is my civic duty to stand up for justice and advocate for those in my community. I believe transparency, accountability and honesty are fundamentals needed in government and as such should be key traits in our next state representative.

Joel McAuliffe

I am the most qualified candidate in this race with experience in State and Local government who knows what it takes to make sure Chicopee and Western Mass gets its fair share on Beacon Hill. I got into this race because I love Chicopee and I want to make sure it has someone fighting for it in Boston who will be its most effective advocate – I believe to my core, I am that candidate.