While State Rep. Jay Livingstone has long been committed to increasing food access in his district and throughout the Commonwealth, he is now more devoted to the cause than ever before as more Massachusetts residents find themselves struggling with food insecurity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Food insecurity is an issue I’ve worked on for several years, and it’s become a much more pressing issue now,” he said. “In January, 9 percent of people [statewide] were food insecure, but now that number is estimated at 38 percent.”
In response to this alarming trend, Rep. Livingstone has taken several initiatives to increase access to food benefits, especially the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which is administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance to provide needy families with a supplemental food budget.
“The best food benefits are SNAP benefits,” he said. “There are other programs like WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children], but SNAP provides overwhelmingly more support for families in need in the United States.”
To this end, Rep. Livingstone filed an amendment to the Information Technology Bond bill, which passed in the state legislature last Wednesday, May 20, to provide $5 million to create a single application that would allow Massachusetts residents to simultaneously apply for SNAP and MassHealth.
“If you’re eligible for MassHealth, chances are eligible for SNAP and vice versa, but around 1.5 million people receive MassHealth while only about 750,000 are receiving SNAP benefits,” Rep. Livingstone explained. “That’s the ‘SNAP gap,’ but if people were applying for MassHealth could apply for SNAP at the same time because they require the same information, more people would get that benefit.”
Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, who is serves as House Chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo have been incredibly supportive of his efforts, Rep. Livingstone said, and Sen. Sal DiDomenico has filed the same bill in the Senate, which if it passes there, will then go to Gov. Charlie Baker to sign into law.
But despite SNAP’s many advantages, one major drawback of the program is that recipients must use their SNAP/EBT cards at the point of sale, which prevents them for ordering food online and picking it up at the store.
“Some of my constituents claimed they had immune issues, and that their doctors told them not to go to the grocery store so they couldn’t access benefits,” Rep. Livingstone said. “One of the first things I realized was other states are in a pilot program that allows [their SNAP recipients] to order food online and have it delivered.”
In April, Rep. Livingstone drafted a letter he sent to 42 colleagues asking the Gov. Baker to request a waiver on restrictions on the SNAP program. The Governor responded two days later and told Rep. Livingstone he would request the waiver within a week. The federal government has since approved the request, and the Department of Transitional Assistance is now working with the vendor to begin offering the expanded SNAP service in Massachusetts. Moreover, Rep. Livingstone filed an additional amendment to the IT bill requesting a $500,000 grant for grocery stores in the Commonwealth to purchase equipment to make curbside options possible.