WMass program to improve nutrition for families living in hotels

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Daniel Tejeras moved his wife and three children from Puerto Rico to Boston last November so his children could be treated by specialists at Boston Children’s Hospital. After just a few months here, the family was homeless and living in a motel in Brighton, eating frozen TV dinners and canned soups heated in a microwave.

At the motel, the family is not allowed any cooking devices other than the microwave, for fear of fire. And the nearest grocery store is a mile-and-a-half walk away. “If you want to cook in a hotel room it is impossible,” he said.

Along with tackling the growing homelessness problem across the state, a handful of lawmakers are looking at how families living in temporary situations eat.

House lawmakers tucked an amendment into the annual state budget to launch a pilot program in western Massachusetts to develop ways to get more nutritious foods to homeless families living in motels and hotels. The amendment did not make it into the Senate budget last week, and now becomes part of the annual state budget conference committee negotiations, which will be decided by six lawmakers.

“It doesn’t seem we have an answer to eliminate people living in motels. As long as they are living in motels what are the options beyond microwaving popcorn, and SpaghettiOs and Ramen noodles? That is what we are hoping to get at,” said Rep. John Scibak (D-South Hadley), a sponsor of the amendment.

Tejeras’ children’s intestinal condition, Sticklers Syndrome, requires they eat gluten-free, low-fat food, with no white flour. They have problems with their joints, and asthma.

Tejeras feels trapped without options. “What else can I do? I cannot go against the system,” he said. “But I know this is not healthy for the kids. It worries me because I know that affects their health.”

Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), who filed the amendment, said he worries about the number of small children and infants who have no access to nutritious foods while living in a motel. He said many families are grabbing meals from convenience stores.

“Those kids are really suffering,” he said.

“It is inhumane the way that these people are living. It is better than living in a car, but we have to take that next step. We have to give these kids an opportunity to succeed,” Kocot said.

Kocot said the idea is to get a group of farmers, grocery store and restaurant owners, experts from local colleges, and homeless advocates together to brainstorm about getting fruits and vegetables and fresh cooked meals to families living in temporary shelter.

If included in the final version of the budget, a pilot program will be developed and launched in Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Berkshire counties. The amendment does not allocate any money to the program. The goal is to organize a working group, identify homeless populations that could benefit from receiving healthier foods, and find ways to make regular contact with families, lawmakers said.

It is a challenge to find places to donate and transport fresh, healthy food to families who need it, lawmakers said. “We are in a situation in this a country and in this Commonwealth, where people are throwing perfectly good food away, and people don’t have access to that food,” Scibak said.

Scibak said he hopes the group will think creatively and look at ways to package meals from local farms and supermarkets, things that are leftover that can be put together in a bag and be delivered to families.

“Are there ways to do things that will enable a family that is living in one room that only has access to microwave, to prepare foods that are healthier?” Scibak said.

Sherrie Hayes, 39, and her four children live in the Days Inn in Greenfield. She said her family either eats canned pasta, noodles, cereal or Hot Pockets. “It is awful,” she said.

“They are upset every day,” Hayes said, referring to her children. “They want to go to people’s houses to cook, so they can eat.”

Hayes said she sometimes will go to a relative’s house in Orange to cook, but it is difficult because she has to find a ride there and back.

Her children, who have eaten mostly microwaved food since 2012, are starting to have health problems, she said. The family’s doctor has written to managers at the hotel, asking them to provide the family with a way to cook meals because of the health problems, Hayes said.

“They still won’t let me have nothing,” she said.

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