Racial Healing and Food Banking

By Andrew Morehouse, Executive Director

Our Mobile Food bank reaches the underserved populations throughout Western Massachusetts that don’t otherwise have access to fresh, healthy foods.

Our Mobile Food bank reaches the underserved populations throughout Western Massachusetts that don’t otherwise have access to fresh, healthy foods.

I was very fortunate to participate recently in a two-day workshop on “racial healing.” Hosted by the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley, it’s “framework” states:

“Many in the Greater Springfield area believe that racism continues to afflict us and has an impact on our businesses, neighborhoods, schools and interpersonal relationships. A process that facilitates an understanding of the root causes and effects of racism, and the institutional nature of racism, will allow for the building of a better and more equitable community.”

You might be asking yourself: what does racism have to do with food banking? The fact is the emergency food network of local feeding programs — pantries, meal sites and shelters — has evolved over the past three decades in such a way that it cannot meet the needs of food insecure households equitably by county and, therefore, by race. The majority of people of color in our region live in Hampden County where the average food insecure household receives the least amount of emergency food compared to the same average household in any of the other three counties of Western Massachusetts (Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties).  Another way of saying it is that our network has unwittingly created unequal institutional access to emergency food by race.

Although there is a large number of feeding programs in Hampden County (77 in total), there simply is not enough local capacity to receive, store and distribute the same level of food for people in need  as in other counties. Ultimately, more than half of all food at The Food Bank is distributed to Hampden County through these programs and our own direct delivery programs (Brown Bag: Food for Elders and Mobile Food Bank). Despite this, the food insecure population in Hampden County is far greater than in the three other counties.

Let me be clear — no one intentionally set up our region’s emergency food network with insufficient capacity in Hampden County.  Local feeding programs, including faith-based pantries and meal sites, generally operate on very tight budgets and rely on tremendous volunteer support. It’s taken thousands of staff, volunteers and funders decades to build the incredible community network that we have today. In Hampden County, the resources needed to run a program (such as volunteers, reliable transportation, and financial support) tend to be harder to come by. At the same time, life for vulnerable and struggling households certainly got much harder with the onset of the Great Recession. For many, it hasn’t gotten much easier — particularly in Hampden County, where the population in poverty continues to climb.

What we believe matters is that we understand this geographic and racial inequity in our region’s emergency food network and that we must do something about it. We are committed to providing more meals more equitably to more people in need of food assistance. This means that everyone getting food in Western Massachusetts should receive the same amount, regardless of which county they live in.

In order to ensure equal access to healthy food across the region, we have begun to focus our resources on increasing the availability of emergency food in Hampden County. To accomplish this goal, we devoted a year to planning with our member agencies from all four counties. We worked closely with them to identify challenges facing the emergency food network. Together, we have developed a plan to equalize food distribution across Western Massachusetts over the next several years. We’re committed to this goal because everyone has a right to healthy food regardless of their circumstances.