“If some good comes out of this …”
We’ve all heard it at some point, and we’ve probably all said it, too.
As a prebaked rationalization for the irrational, or as a modicum of order we can slather on the randomness of life, looking on the bright side — making lemons out of lemonade, to cite another old trope — is probably rooted somewhere deep in our DNA. It keeps us moving, it keeps us on the lookout for opportunities in the midst of chaos.
And during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been brief slivers of time when it seemed an opportunity existed to really tackle a problem, a real opportunity to sow seeds in the fertile soil left behind by a forest fire. Basic, fundamental questions came into sharp relief. For a time, it seems we finally had time to find some answers.
But like intermittent power outages, when the lights come back on and all the appliances and fans start humming again, if only for a few minutes, the lurching peaks and valleys of the pandemic have created a kind of uncertainty fatigue, in addition to all the other fatigues. People just want that stove clock to come back on so they could reset the time and move on.
Some saw potential in being able to walk down the middle of an empty street during the lockdowns, but it freaked a lot more people out.
For those who saw flashes of potential for systemic change during the pandemic, the work started long before March 2020, and will continue long after the emergency subsides.
Last week, Mayor Joseph M. Petty convened his first Food Security Task Force meeting, an attempt to maintain the momentum of a similar task force that mobilized under the Worcester Together banner to address hunger in the city. State legislators attended, and local organizations like the Worcester County Food Bank and Regional Environmental Council pledged support.
Gina Plata-Nino of Central Western Justice Law Center, and Casey Burns of the Coalition of a Healthy Greater Worcester, were part of a coalition of community groups and restaurants that worked on food security issues during the pandemic, and will co-lead the mayor’s new task force.
Best known for the hot meals delivery program that paid restaurants for meals and had them delivered to individuals and households affected by COVID-19, the Food Insecurity Task Force also worked on underlying equity, access and funding issues.
In an interview Friday, Plata-Nino said she hopes that linking the work done during the pandemic to the mayor’s new task force will strengthen the connection with city government and bring in more participation from other city departments and community organizations that have an interest in food security. It’s an important message that food security is on the mayor’s agenda, she said.
Plata-Nino said the new task force presents an opportunity to provide a central sort of clearinghouse for information on various programs across the city that address hunger.
“I see it as a convener of ideas and resources to tackle food security at a root level,” Plata-Nino said. “We’re trying not to reinvent the wheel.”
Creation of ‘data hub’ key
Plata-Nino said one of the new task force’s biggest projects will be to create a “data hub” to centralize information about food resources and make it easily accessible for the community. She said the pandemic effort brought so many resources together, but it wasn’t always streamlined, and it wasn’t mapped.
She said the task force will marry the data and resources to make sure people are getting the help they need, where they need it.
“We’ve had conversations with food pantries who say, ‘We have so much food,’ but then a couple miles away there are pantries who say, ‘We don’t have enough food.’ I would say, ‘Are you guys talking?’ ”
Plata-Nino said data mapping can show that a certain census tract already has 10 food pantries, while another tract has none, so that can help better direct resources.
But ultimately, food pantries are only a Band-Aid for an underlying issue, and Plata-Nino said she hopes getting to those root causes will be a legacy of the task force.
And root causes are often interconnected.
For example, moving the state Department of Transitional Assistance from downtown to Route 20 added extra layers of time, effort and logistics for people who count themselves among the sizable portion of the city’s residents with no internet access. Plata-Nino said that before the COVID-19 vaccine arrived, people had real safety concerns about taking the bus, and that stretch of Route 20 — any stretch of Route 20, really — is not pedestrian-friendly.
Decisions like that might be well-intentioned, but they come from a place of privilege. She said the task force will be designed to build policy from the ground up, using input from people who need and use services and benefits designed to fight hunger. Plata-Nino said the task force will support a bill to require more hearings and public input before a decision is made.
Plata-Nino said food policy is more than just food pantries and hot meal delivery. The task force will also advocate for legislation that gives people more resources and, ultimately, more dignity.
More SNAP, P-EBT benefits needed
She said the task force will push for more SNAP and P-EBT food benefits. The programs bring in billions in federal dollars to local economies, and gives people the dignity of choice.
It also helps Black and Latino communities that have the highest poverty rates and least access to benefits. They are also the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
At the task force meeting Monday, Jean G. McMurray, CEO of the Worcester County Food Bank, said decreases in city residents and households assisted by food bank-partnered pantries can be attributed to boosts in food benefits.
That’s a good thing: McMurray said that as effective as the food bank is, donated food cannot solve the problem of hunger.
Plata-Nino said Friday the task force will support legislation creating a federal reimbursement program allowing homeless people or people over 60 with a disability to use their EBT card to purchase a hot meal at a restaurant.
“I have a client who’s 90 and has no teeth, and she just wants to go to Boston Market to get her mashed potatoes,” Plata-Nino said. “I think of this program and I think of her.”
Privilege is a funny thing, and during the pandemic, it has shaped people’s opinions and public policy, on everything from social distancing to masking to vaccinations and sports. The inequities of the pandemic have essentially created a tiered sense of impact, or a tiered sense of recovery.
Many people have been able to ride out the pandemic relatively unscathed. Others lost their jobs and are struggling to stay in their homes. Still others are still waiting to grieve lost friends and family members.
“These are people who had steady jobs, and maybe their child care ended,” Plata-Nino said. “Instead of a two-person working household, now it’s one working household. All these things are happening at the same time, but for some of us, nothing really changed. We’re still getting paid, we’re still working from home.
“But there are people — front-line workers, restaurant workers — day-to-day, they never had that. For them, it was never over.”
Plata-Nino and the task force have their work cut out for them. Sky-high real estate prices and concerns about gentrification, coupled with fears about eviction moratoriums sunsetting, put that much more pressure on food security in the city.
Plata-Nino said she’s realistic about the task force’s potential. But she noted that during the pandemic the original Worcester Together Food Insecurity Task Force, which met twice a week at the Boys & Girls Club and still meets once a week, accomplished a beautiful thing — bringing together private and public agencies and private and public funding to deliver emergency relief quickly.
A lot of that stigma has melted away, and that creates space to have honest conversations about real problems.
“The fact that we’re even talking about it, at a city level, makes us optimistic,” she said.
Contact Steven H. Foskett Jr., at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SteveFoskettTG