At a hearing Thursday, state lawmakers on the Agriculture Commission heard details of a report suggesting that a third of the region’s food could be produced locally by 2030.
The report issued by The New England Food System Planners Partnership addressed what it would take for the six-state region to boost its food resiliency in the face of disruptions such as climate change. It said the goal could be achieved through adequate state funding, legislation and a collaboration between the New England states.
But there are challenges.
In Massachusetts, “low paying food system jobs, a lack of funding allocated to programs that would help low-income residents get healthy and affordable food, and a lack of connection between farmers and markets,” exacerbate the growing number of people facing food insecurities, said Rebecca Miller, policy director at the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative.
While New England’s food system employs 1 million people and generates $190 billion in sales, “employment and sales in agriculture and fisheries is flat or declining,” the report said.
The report, which was funded, in part, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a project that was released as part of the Planners Partnership goal to increase food resiliency across the region over the next decade.
Michael Smolak, owner of Smolak Farms in North Andover, told lawmakers he hasn’t been able to make connections with grocery stores and restaurants to offer his local crop.
“For every dollar, farmers make 96 cents,” he said.
And he’s not alone.
“Farmers are finding it difficult to connect with market outlets which account for 84% of the region’s food sales,” Miller said.
Over the last 75 years, the drastic changes in the way food is harvested and consumed have impacted the agriculture industry, leading the region’s farmers, fishermen and food businesses to export their products worldwide rather than locally, the report said.
New England’s population is projected to increase over the next decade from 15.3 million to 15.6 million, according to the report. So, the group suggests legislators allocate funding through policies that would encourage healthier eating habits.
“If we switch to resilient eating, which would require significantly more fruits, vegetables, and fish and a decrease in processed foods, more of our food could be supplied by regional production,” the report said.
The state has allocated $5 million in the 2024 fiscal year, plus a commitment to carry forward $12 million of unspent funds from previous years toward the Healthy Incentive Program, which helps people put “money back on their EBT card when they use SNAP to buy healthy, local fruits and vegetables from HIP farm vendors,” the state’s website said.
WMass faces growing food deserts
The report went out of its way to highlight the lack of accessible major chain grocery stores in the greater Springfield area.
According to a graphic that showed the census tracts across Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke and parts of Chicopee, many of the densely populated Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are largely supplied by dollar stores and smaller stores as sources of food, and major chains are further away from the urban centers.
In Western Massachusetts, food insecurity is exacerbated by a lack of “better public transportation and inflation,” said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
The soaring cost of food at grocery stores prevents many residents on tight budgets from finding healthy, economically friendly and culturally appropriate foods close to their homes.
Despite the $190 billion food industry in New England, more than 590,000 people in the state are currently facing food insecurities, the report found.
“Low-income consumers don’t have opportunities for affordable, healthy food options,” said Miller.
Remote rural areas in the western part of the state especially feel this disparity compared to eastern Massachusetts, Morehouse said.
“We believe everyone has the right to healthy food,” he said.