BOSTON, Mass.—For many homeless Massachusetts families, dinner means mini-fridges, microwaves, and the closest fast food chain to their hotel room. But legislators are hoping to change that with an amendment to the annual state budget that would bring nutritional food to displaced families living in hotels and motels.
The proposed pilot program would bring together healthy food from a variety of sources, such as UMass/Amherst, food pantries, and churches. The food would next be packaged and stored and then distributed to families based on need. The program would begin in four western Massachusetts counties—Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire—without any state money being allocated toward it.
Representative John Scibak (South Hadley), who co-sponsored the amendment proposed by Representative Peter Kocot (Northampton), is dedicated to the program’s success as well as its emphasis on helping as many displaced families as possible.
“We want to provide an option for families currently living in hotels who want to provide healthy food for their kids and for themselves,” Scibak said. “Many don’t think of the repercussions…you basically constrict them to a microwave. Anything we can do to alleviate any source of pressure has got to be helpful.”
The program’s testing phase would include consulting with nutritionists, farmers, and distributors in order to determine the healthiest foods best suited for turning into meals that can be cooked in a hotel room, as well as how best to transport and distribute the meals. Scibak cites western Massacusetts’ large farming community as an invaluable resource to the amendment, as well as the farm shares that already exist with the purpose of acquiring and donating fresh food.
“Every stakeholder [in the program] is within a twenty mile radius,” Scibak said. “Farming is an integral part of our economy…it’s a no-brainer.”
Homelessness stretches throughout the state, not just in western Massachusetts. But the birthplace of the amendment in the western part of the Commonwealth was integral to its conception, due to a strong coalition of locals already devoted to helping the homeless in the region, as well as its connections to farms and fresh food.
Representative Kevin Honan (Allston/Brighton), House Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, understands the plight of families in his district as well, and recognized that though families displaced in hotels needed a long-term solution, the program would be a good way to address an immediate need for healthy food.
“The state’s emergency shelter system is at capacity, and as a result we have around 1,940 families living in hotels and motels throughout the Commonwealth,” Honan said. “There is virtually no chance for these families to prepare healthy, complete meals for their children, which every parent knows is a critical component to childhood development.”
If the program were to blossom and expand to other cities, it is questionable how they would fare without easy access to farms and fresh foods. In addition, lack of quick transportation for perishable foods might hinder the success of the original program.
“We’re just trying to implement a pilot program and see if it could work,” Scibak said. “Could it happen? And if it does happen, do we expand it?”
Despite the potential difficulties, Scibak has faith in the amendment, enough that he would pursue it with Kocot if it is not passed.
“I don’t think there’s an issue in getting the food,” Scibak said. “I don’t think there’s an issue packaging the food. I don’t think there’s an issue in even transporting the food. I think it is reasonable.”
Massachusetts’ fiscal year begins July 1, meaning that the fate of the amendment and the program it could provide will be decided shortly.