Patricia Baker, Senior Policy Advocate at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.
Patricia joined MLRI’s Benefits Unit in 1983 following six years of advocacy at Western Mass Legal Services. She has worked at both the state and federal level on a range of legislative, administrative, and policy matters that affect low-income families, elders, and persons with disabilities. Patricia has authored and edited numerous publications, including the Food Stamp/SNAP Advocacy Guide as well as other MLRI guides involving cash assistance programs, immigrant eligibility issues, and homeless rights. She has also co-authored and contributed to several national reports for the Food Research Action Center and Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Patricia is the recipient of multiple honors and awards including the 2013 Dr. Raymond Wheeler/Senator Paul Wellstone Anti-Hunger Advocacy Leadership Award, the 2014 Eos Foundation Changing the Equation Award, and the 2009 Kit Clark Award. Her advocacy and leadership have contributed to a significant reversal of the state’s previously low SNAP participation rate and removal of access barriers.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Patricia about her background and opportunity in anti-hunger grassroots movements.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved with your work?
Patricia Baker (PB): I have been in legal services work since 1977. Throughout my life, like most Americans, I have personally benefited from government-funded benefits including attending public schools and receiving financial aid to complete higher education. And at times, members of my own family needed access to safety-net benefits when facing insurmountable financial hardship. An important role of our government in a democratic society is to ensure we have a strong safety net for all our residents. We pay taxes to be able to ensure that people get w hat they need to be able to live and thrive in best and worst of times. I ‘ve been inspired to social justice work because I know first hand how important these services were for my family and my community.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
PB: It is an honor and privileged to be an advocate. I am essentially paid to do what I would do as a volunteer. It is an honor to be able to work with diverse communities and help them advocate to protect their basic rights to core safety-net programs that can provide a path out of poverty.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
PB: I would say, my mom. She was an immigrant from Ireland, arriving after World War II. My Mom was a phenomenal woman, ferociously strong, smart and, compassionate. She plowed through many difficulties in her life, both in Ireland and then in the U.S. She was a huge inspiration to me as a strong woman, more than anybody I would say, my mom.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
PB: I think the biggest threat to the nation’s food system are recent initiatives from Congress and the President to undermine key federal nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps ), WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and the Emergency Feeding Program (funding food banks) . However, the biggest opportunity is the grassroots movement to push back against the reckless slashing of these critical safety net benefits. T he anti-hunger community in Massachusetts and nationally are active in pushing against cuts. Congressman Jim McGovern, who will be at this Summit, is the nation’s anti-hunger champion in Congress. His voice has inspired activists across the nation to defend and protect what we hold dear in this country, including programs that reduce hunger and food insecurity.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
PB: There are many heroes who inspired me over many years. Most recently, Kathryn Edin documented lives impacted by extreme poverty in her book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. She and Michael Harrington, author of The Other America: Poverty in the United States published in 1962, have both given a spotlight on poverty among plenty in the United States. They talk about the difficulty low-income households face in trying to keep employment and housing in a very ruthless economy. Edin highlights the challenges of living in an economy where employers want people on demand, where they keep you on the list and never call you. They bring light to the everyday vulnerabilities of those living in poverty and on the edge. It might be possible to survive as a younger person on unpredictable income and couch surfing, but when you add to that list raising children and homelessness, your ability to maintain a job and a home is severely compromised. My heroes are the people who have documented the truth about poverty and highlighted what it is like to be poor in a rich country.
FT: What is the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you would like to see solved?
PB: The federal nutrition programs have made a huge difference for every low-income household able to access the benefits. The most pressing issue right now is to protect and defend these programs. I will note, the benefits are woefully inadequate. The average SNAP benefit of US$1.41 per meal, per day is incredibly difficult for anybody to live on. Nonetheless, the most pressing issue for me is to make sure that these programs are maintained and allow eligible households the right to shop for food they need, where they chose and with the same dignity as everyone else. We should not force the poor to live off of food pantries, or cast off food.
FT: What is one small change everyone can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
PB: Getting to know someone—whether a neighbor, a family member or a stranger—who has experienced hunger and poverty. That step alone of sitting side by side with a low-incomer person, witnessing that, and understanding it could be a game changer to that individual, make them more aware and sensitive to why it is so important to keep our safety net intact. The one small change is going to a food pantry or community feeding program—not to serve meals, but to just sit and talk with someone about their lives. To bear witness to their poverty in a non-judgmental way. I think awareness and compassion can grow from that small step, that interaction, like planting a seed or a bulb in the ground.
FT: What advice would you have for President Trump and the U.S. Congress about food and agriculture?
PB: Our government has long embraced some very strong values, including ensuring that everybody in need has access to food, a strong safety net, and opportunity. This safety net does not emerge through charity or the private sector, but through government ensuring that we have strong programs in place. Let’s not start looking for ways to cut taxes or expand the military on the backs of the poor.
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