What Boston's 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have to Say On Food Access

Project Bread

News

Project Bread reached out to 2021 Boston mayoral candidates Michelle Wu and Anissa Essaibi-George to hear their stances on food access and justice in advance of the election on November 2nd.

Here's what they had to say.


How would you collaborate with and support the existing Mayor’s Office of Food Access and Boston Food Access Council to reduce food insecurity in your community?

Wu: Food is the foundation of public health, and the Office of Food Access plays a unique and important role in strengthening Boston’s food system infrastructure. As Mayor, I’ll work to increase collaboration and partnership across City departments and agencies, including between OFA and its partners throughout the Health and Human Services Cabinet. I’ve also
proposed the creation of a Children’s Cabinet within City Hall to align and coordinate programming at OFA with education, housing, healthcare, recreation, legal, and other services for children and families across schools, City departments, and non-governmental service providers. I’ll invest in data collection within OFA and across all of City government to make it easier to monitor and evaluate progress towards our food systems goals, empower local non-profit organizations to target their programming to community and neighborhood needs, and ensure public accountability, with clear, culturally-relevant, comprehensive metrics reported regularly to the City Council and the public. And I’ll use the full power of the Mayor’s office to empower the Boston Food Access Council to organize, build diverse coalitions, and raise our collective voice in pursuit of an ambitious food justice agenda.

Over the last year and a half of disruption, Boston’s community organizations and advocacy groups have played a truly heroic role in ensuring that all of our residents continue to have access to nutritious, culturally relevant food. Throughout all of Boston’s neighborhoods, across every level of government, and among the public, private, and non-profit sectors, we have seen new, creative strategies – as well as tried-and-true programs that newly had the resources to operate effectively – come together to keep our residents stable, healthy and well-nourished. We have learned so much about what works, and we’ve also been reminded of who continues to slip through the cracks – residents who are undocumented, unhoused, face language barriers, or don’t know what programs they qualify for. With new federal resources on the table, and with all that we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, there should be no excuse for allowing Boston residents to continue to experience food insecurity. We need leadership in City Hall to bring all stakeholders to the table around a bold vision of closing these gaps and eliminating food insecurity in Boston.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

Feeding America estimates nearly 1 in 8 Boston (12.3%) residents experienced food insecurity in 2018. In 2020, Feeding America projected over 1 in 6 (17.1%) Boston residents would experience food insecurity.


What are your plans for working in partnership with those with recent or current lived experience of food insecurity to inform and implement solutions?

Wu: I’m committed to leading transparently and collaboratively as Mayor, building on our record of building broad, diverse coalitions throughout my time on the City Council. As a BPS mom, a caregiver, and a regular T rider, I’m in spaces and communities everyday showing the urgency of this moment. I’m running for Mayor to transform how City Hall operates so that we meet people where they’re at and ensure that every community is seen, valued, and connected to opportunity. To build the city we dream of, we must break down silos across communities and issue areas to build a holistic vision and a movement for change – with city government as a
platform for organizing and activism.

I especially hear the urgency in our communities not just to make big promises, but to make things happen on the ground. For too long, the work of City Hall has happened behind the scenes, disconnected from our neighborhoods. As Mayor, I won’t just change policies – I’ll work in coalition to transform our politics by opening the doors to civic engagement, empowering our young people to shape our future, and creating a real culture of public accountability. I’ll ensure that my Cabinet and leadership team reflect all of our city’s diversity, placing a real premium on lived experience with Boston’s most pressing challenges, from food insecurity and housing instability to gun violence to extreme heat. And I’ll continue to make time to be in community, listening and learning from residents most impacted by city policy so that City Hall can truly work for all of Boston.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

SNAP GAP

As of March 2021, there were 66,746 residents here in Boston that are most likely eligible for SNAP, but not receiving this critical food resource. There are a number of reasons for this ranging for stigma, fears over immigration concerns, or simply challenges with applying for SNAP. In addition to helping families access food, SNAP has a stimulative effect on the local economy. Every $1 dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity.


How would you work to ensure that more eligible residents receive SNAP benefits?

Wu: Boston has one of the highest SNAP gaps in the state of Massachusetts, and we must find creative solutions to meet our residents’ basic needs. The City should use its organizing power to effectively advocate for changes to SNAP, WIC, and other programs that increase benefits and broaden eligibility, building on the recent increase of maximum SNAP benefits at the federal level. I’ll continue to use my platform as Mayor to empower our communities to demand the change we need at the state and federal levels. But there is also so much the City can and should do unilaterally to connect Boston residents with existing food assistance programs and fill in the gaps left by state and federal programs.

While nationwide, rates of food insecurity stayed relatively steady throughout the pandemic, that overall number obscures the fact that food insecurity worsened for Black and Latinx households, particularly those with children. And we know that Boston’s immigrant residents, our unhoused residents, and vulnerable members of our community might not know the benefits they’re entitled to, or might face barriers to enrollment like lack of formal documentation. City Hall must coordinate with community, neighborhood, faith-based and other organizations to push back against misinformation, lessen stigma, and identify effective, multilingual messaging strategies to communicate the value of these programs to all residents. As Mayor, I’ll prioritize empowering these local organizations with resources, technical assistance, and reliable, streamlined access to City departments and agencies so that we can work together to get Boston residents the resources they need. We must also ensure that our food businesses are equipped with the infrastructure needed to welcome SNAP shoppers – for example, by subsidizing EBT processing equipment for vendors at farmers markets participating in HIP.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

As mayor, would you support passing state legislation to streamline the application process for SNAP, MassHealth, cash assistance, and other critical safety-net programs?

Wu: Yes. In July 2020, I authored and passed a resolution in the City Council urging Governor Baker to close the SNAP gap by implementing a universal application for MassHealth and SNAP, and I also spearheaded a letter signed by all City Councilors urging DTA to take all action to close gaps. As Mayor, I’ll continue to work in partnership with community and advocates to drive forward advocacy at the state and federal levels.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

Summer Eats

In July of 2019, 11,211 kids in Boston benefitted from the Summer Eats program, which provides them with a free, nutritious meal each day when school is out.

This is only 22.4% of the kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals during the school year and could benefit from free summer meals.

Three girls enjoy lunch at a Summer Eats meal site.
Three girls enjoy lunch at a Summer Eats meal site.

If elected Mayor, how would you help promote this critical program in your city?

Wu: The additional barriers that make it harder for children to access free, nutritious meals over the summer demonstrate the consequences when the responsibility for protecting the health and well-being of our children is siloed only within Boston Public Schools, rather than embedded throughout all City decisions and operations. As Mayor, I’ll create a Children’s Cabinet within City Hall to align and coordinate all the programs and services that serve children, creating a civic ecosystem that allows all children to thrive – inside and outside of school, every month of the year. We need an institutional framework that brings together BPS, Boston Public Library, Boston Housing Authority, Boston Centers for Youth & Families, community-based organizations and non-governmental partners like Project Bread on an ongoing basis to ensure that Summer Eats serves all children, in accessible locations, at times that work for working families, and with food that is nutritious and culturally relevant. Families shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or navigate confusing websites to secure the resources their children need. We’ll meet people where they are by transforming every municipal building, parcel and program into a community hub with all the resources that Boston has to offer – from summer meals to housing assistance to health care.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

Universal School Meals

During COVID-19, USDA allowed for all schools to provide school meals to all students without application, registration, or fees. This removed several of the barriers that lower participation in school breakfast and lunch.

In some districts, including Boston Public Schools and a number of others located in Boston, universal school meals was already the norm thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

A schoolgirl with a protective medical mask, with a backpack, eating delicious lunch near the school.
A schoolgirl with a protective medical mask, with a backpack, eating delicious pastries for lunch near the school. Back to school. New normal.
We're reimagining school meals. Join us on our Feed Kids Campaign

However, over twenty schools with enrollment with more than 4,000 students in Boston do not enjoy the benefits of universal school meals. Roughly half are currently eligible for CEP.

In addition, in 2019-2020 there were 3,205 students enrolled in METCO who either did not qualify for free or reduced-price meals or had to fill out paperwork and face the stigma of receiving school meals.

If elected mayor, how would you use your office to encourage schools located in, or near, Boston to adopt currently available federal provisions to serve universal school meals?

Wu: Universal school meals are a foundation for the health and wellbeing of our entire city, and they must extend beyond BPS. I’m committed to building a Children’s Cabinet that reflects the needs of all of Boston’s children, whether they attend BPS, a private or parochial school within Boston, or a school in another district. Students get nearly half their daily calories from school breakfast and lunch programs, and I’ll use every lever of power within City Hall to ensure that all of Boston’s children have access to this critical resource – both by encouraging the adoption of CEP wherever possible, and by deploying City resources to help families navigate enrollment systems where it’s not.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

Would you commit your support, as mayor, to passing state legislation that ensures free school meals for all students?

Wu: Yes. Our commitment to the health and wellbeing of children cannot stop at the city’s borders. I’m proud to support S.314/H.714, An Act Relative to Universal School Meals, and I’m ready to work in partnership with Representative Vargas, Senator DiDomenico, and leaders across the Commonwealth to pass this essential legislation.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

In May 2020, Project Bread in partnership with Children’s HealthWatch published The State of Hunger in Massachusetts which focused on East Boston as a case study of the challenges families face in navigating their basic needs, such as food, pre-pandemic. The report highlighted the racial and ethnic disparities of food insecurity with Black and Latino households having far higher rates of hunger than white households. The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. The report also detailed the everyday discrimination experienced by Latino and immigrant households that contribute directly or indirectly to food insecurity.


What steps would your administration take in reducing stigma and increasing accessibility for households of all backgrounds to access federal nutrition programs and other food resources?

Wu: I am a daughter of immigrants and a fierce believer that we can solve our deepest challenges through building community. In order to protect and support our immigrant neighbors in Boston, we must take into account the multiple hurdles they face in and outside of work. I believe that labeling ourselves a “Sanctuary City” and calling it a day isn’t enough. We need to create a proactive, pro-immigrant policy agenda. Language access and cultural competency are critical for ensuring that immigrant workers are able to succeed in school, at work, and as they interact with government. In 2016, I passed legislation guaranteeing translation and interpretation for residents with limited English proficiency, and assistive technology for residents with hearing or visual impairments to access City services. As Mayor, I’ll continue to deepen our commitment to language access in partnership with advocacy groups, community-based organizations, and unions that represent our immigrant neighbors.

Immigrant families, and especially undocumented residents, have faced incredible stress in recent years, not only via the existing challenges of dealing with language and cultural barriers, but also from being excluded from COVID-19 relief packages and being discriminated against by our own government in the early response to this pandemic. Direct outreach from the city to immigrant residents, workers and business owners is crucial at all times, but especially during moments of crisis. This direct outreach must be multilingual and culturally competent. Many sources of relief are given out on a first-come-first-served basis, so the City government must be proactive in anticipating and eliminating barriers to access. If we only help those with preexisting banking relationships, those who speak English, and those who already know how to navigate municipal government, we will emerge from the pandemic even more unequal than we entered it. Early on in the pandemic, I sponsored a City Council hearing to fight for a COVID-19 relief effort that was rooted in equity, recognizing that without concerted action from City Hall, relief programs will only exacerbate the same racial and economic inequities that predated the pandemic. As Mayor, I’ll use this equity lens to ensure Black, Latinx, and immigrant households have access to City, state and federal nutrition programs, and where gaps exist, I’ll direct City resources to close them.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

How do you plan to use your platform as mayor to dismantle systemic racism and xenophobia, particularly in ways that advance equity in accessing basic needs, employment opportunities, and increase generational wealth?

Wu: Racism is a public health crisis in Boston, from tragic disparities in Black maternal health to the epidemic of gun violence that disproportionately harms Black and brown communities. The fight for equality includes ensuring linguistically and culturally competent care, access to gender affirming services, and health policy that centers people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Boston can be the healthiest city in the country for all of our residents by investing in our community health providers and partnerships, tackling chronic and underlying health issues in the population, and expanding access to outreach and preventative care.

Access to nutritious food can help power healthy families, and investments in local, community-oriented food production and distribution are the building blocks for eliminating food insecurity and creating a sustainable, just food system. Diet-related chronic diseases are some of the biggest health challenges that Boston residents – and particularly Black Boston residents – face. And we know that the major drivers of diet quality include housing stability, job quality, and other structural socio-economic factors. I’ve laid out a food justice agenda that rethinks our food system from beginning to end, starting with corporatized food production processes that compromise workers’ rights and leave our food supply chain vulnerable to disruption. Through robust community partnerships, equitable food procurement practices, higher standards for our school breakfast and lunch programs, support for small businesses like bodegas and family-owned restaurants, and a commitment to creating good jobs with livable wages and strong benefits, we can better serve our communities and build a healthier Boston.

We must also recognize the connections between systemic racism, the racial wealth gap, and disparities in health outcomes. Black and brown communities in Boston, through institutional racism and discriminatory policies such as redlining and segregation, have been systematically denied the rights and access to build generational wealth. We have the resources to tackle disparities in home ownership, entrepreneurship, and educational access as the foundation for creating generational wealth in communities of color. We recently learned that over the last five years, Black- and Latinx-owned firms took home an abysmally low 1.2 percent share of Boston’s public contracting dollars. I’ve led the charge on the Council to ensure equity and accountability in city contracting, and I have a concrete plan to get it done. I will create a one-stop shop for potential vendors, and I’ll direct my chief procurement officer to lead a comprehensive strategy to ensure equitable representation of local and minority-owned businesses in city spending. We should unbundle large contracts to open the door for neighborhood small businesses, whose dollars multiply in our communities. And we also need a long-term plan to build sustainable growth pathways for city contractors, so that public dollars can be used to generate wealth and opportunity for the next generation of women and minority business enterprises.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

The Commonwealth is set to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by January 2023, but the MIT Living Wage calculator estimates that a living wage is currently anywhere between $14.46 per hour for two full time working adults with no children, and $73.05 for a single working parent with three children in Suffolk County. At Project Bread we have long argued that the reason for food insecurity is not insufficient amount of food, but rather that wages have not kept up with the high cost of living. Combined with historic and current inequities, this leaves many households without enough money to meet their housing, transportation, healthcare, childcare, and other needs. Food is often one of the first sacrifices made in times of crisis.


Can you please share your plans to address other challenges food insecure households may be facing?

Wu: In 2018, our state legislators agreed to raise the minimum wage to $15 – but not until 2023, by which point the baseline will continue to be insufficient for workers to earn enough income to live in Boston. Our City should harness its people power to advocate for bolder state-level action, including eliminating the tipped minimum wage, but in the meantime, Boston should lead where we can – including by proactively enforcing all procurement standards, including the Living Wage Ordinance, which requires that municipal vendors pay all employees a living wage, and that they don’t attempt to defer responsibility to subcontractors.

Safe, healthy, affordable, and accessible housing is a human right – and for many families, it is the foundation of food security. Yet in Boston, a stable home has become a luxury not everyone can afford. Throughout the historic development boom of the last few decades, new growth has not benefited all Bostonians equally. Even as Bostonians struggle to remain in place, our linkage program is failing to maximize private contributions for housing, and too many tax-exempt institutions are not paying their fair share. We must ensure that private development benefits Boston neighborhoods by leveraging private funding to fight displacement and stabilize our communities. My housing justice agenda includes boosting city funds to directly construct affordable housing, simplifying our processes to expedite affordable housing development, and using city land to leverage resources for housing in our communities. I will also ensure Boston focuses on expanding home ownership and fighting for the tools of rent stabilization to keep families in their homes.

Although the City has set goals for construction of new income-restricted units, this does not include specific goals around deep affordability—housing that is truly affordable to Boston residents—nor affordable ownership opportunities. Over the last several years, only 9% of newly permitted income-restricted units have been affordable to residents making up to 60% of the area median income (AMI)—who make up nearly half of our population. Boston must double down on affordability, including affordable homeownership opportunities and long-term affordability through social housing. Our housing programs must use more accurate measures
of affordability to better understand neighborhood affordability needs and base all calculations of housing affordability on the City-wide median income or the median income for each neighborhood, whichever is lower, rather than AMI.

I have been a staunch supporter of bold action to stabilize families and have taken on corporations that we’re driving up rents, such as Airbnb. We are in a housing crisis in Boston, and if we don’t take action, we are going to become a city where only the very wealthiest can afford to live. The recently released Census results should be a wake-up call to policymakers: without urgent action, Black residents, and particularly families with children, will continue being pushed out of our city. To build a city where every family can thrive, we need to stabilize rents in the short-term – but right now, state legislation prevents Boston from using rent control to protect families from displacement. I am the only candidate in this race who supports both lifting
the statewide ban on rent control and implementing local rent stabilization measures. We also need door-to-door, multilingual outreach to connect residents with state and federal resources, and a long-term vision to grow our supply of affordable housing and solve our housing crisis.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

How would you ensure new economic opportunities or programs that help Bostonians access basic needs, such as housing or food, are equitably delivered to those most at need?

Wu: We need to help every Bostonian access work opportunities, and our economic development strategy must recognize that housing stability, educational opportunity, and jobs training are inextricably linked. As Mayor, I would appoint a Cabinet-level Chief of Worker Empowerment with oversight and resources to coordinate and fund multilingual workforce development programming across the public, private and non-profit sectors. I have put forward a comprehensive vision to invest in Madison Park Technical Vocational High School as the economic engine of our city, and accelerate the creation of the new Madison Park Technical Institute for adult learners, so that we have a coordinated strategy to support Boston residents seeking to advance their careers. I also support increasing the linkage fee assessed per square foot for workforce development resources, to ensure that residents can benefit from development in their own neighborhoods.

City Hall should be leading the charge for workforce development pathways that are creating jobs for the new economy that ensure shared prosperity for our communities. I’ve proposed an Urban Conservation Corps to provide workforce development opportunities connected to green jobs and needed resiliency infrastructure investments in environmental justice communities; investing in a sustainable career pathway for childcare providers and entrepreneurs; and leading the charge for protections for gig workers to align our economic growth with good jobs in our city.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

What else would you like to share about your plans to address food insecurity and its root causes?

Wu: For more details on my policy platform, please see my plans for food justice, housing justice, a community vision for Boston’s students and families, and worker empowerment, which together will address the root causes of food insecurity.

Essaibi-George: No response received.

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