REC Launches Mobile Market

The Regional Environmental Council, Inc. has launched its Mobile Farmers Market! With funding support from Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation, the Health Foundation of Central MA, United Way, USDA, Mass in Motion and others, this WRTA donated and rehabed van will be driving around Worcester selling fruits and veggies at 10 different sites! The market accepts all forms of payment including Cash, Credit, Debit, EBT/Food Stamps, WIC, and Senior Coupons! All EBT/Food Stamp purchases are HALF OFF!!
This is a very exciting step towards more equitable fresh food access throughout Worcester.  Several of the stops are in USDA defined Food Desert areas, or areas where the access to food is limited and the income levels are low (of which there are three in Worcester – Main South, Bell Hill, and Great Brook Valley).  

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the season!

Tuesdays Thursdays
Place: Time: Place: Time
Worcester Senior Center 9:00am-10:30am Seabury Heights 9:00am-10:30
Pleasant Towers/Elm Towers 11:00am-12:30pm Elm Park 11:00am-12:30pm
Grant Square 1:00pm-2:30pm Compton Park 1:00pm-2:30pm
Lakeside 3:00pm-4:30pm 40 Belmont 3:00pm-5:00pm
Great Brook Valley 5:00pm-6:30pm Plumley Village 3:00pm-5:30

The Governor’s Budget

On January 25th, the Governor released his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY13).  This budget provides a starting point for the State Representatives and State Senators to develop their own versions of the budget, and come to an agreement in the spring before the start of FY13 in July 2012.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center puts out a great detailed analysis of the budget, as well as this summary: With the Commonwealth facing a preliminary budget gap of approximately $1.3 billion, the Governor proposes balancing the budget with three strategies:

  • Cuts and savings of about $550 million1
  • Modest tax reforms and other revenue initiatives that generate about $215 million in ongoing revenue
  • The use of about $545 million in temporary revenues, mostly from the state stabilization fund (the “rainy day fund”).

In terms of issues related to hunger, food access, and transportation in Worcester as well as throughout the state, we see the following highlights in the Governors budget.

  • $1.5 million cut in Elder Nutrition Programs
  • Level funding of the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP)
  • $3.3 million increase to the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) to increase the number of caseworkers dealing with SNAP (formerly food stamps) cases.
  • Public Health revenue coming from the Governor’s plan to impose the sales tax on soda and candy.
  • Level funding for the state subsidy of WIC overall, with an increase in the amount it can retain from rebate and federal programs.
  • $1.6 million increase in Youth Jobs, which helps support programs in Worcester like YouthGROW, the REC’s urban agriculture and leadership program.
  • A slight increase in funding to MBTA ($779 million to $786 million) for debt servinging and operating costs.
  • Level funding of the Regional Transit Authorities.
  • $14.9 million cut to the MA Transportation Trust Fund.

While its frightening to see the words “cut” and hopeful to see the words “increase” and “level funding”, its just as important to understand what the cuts translate into, what level funding means when there is inflation, and what the increases will address and what they will not.

Elder Nutrition

A cut in funding for the elder nutrition programs, from $6.3 million to $4.8 million could result in the loss of 240,000 free or reduced-price meals for elders. For some elders, the elder lunch programs—which are often run by local councils on aging—are the only guaranteed healthy meal or opportunity for socialization.


The  Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program has been level funded, meaning that it is funded at the same level in 2013 as it was in 2012.  While this is preferable to a direct cut in funding, it can still be seen as a cut because of the continued inflation of food prices, which, according to regional consumer price index analyses, has been 4 percent over the past year.  In addition, many pantries in the Worcester area and across the state are reporting an increase in the number of clients they are seeing.     

SNAP (Food Stamps)

The Administration anticipates that the SNAP (Food Stamp) caseload will continue to rise as it has over the past years. The Administration projects being able to fund additional caseworkers, and the Governor also proposes $3.2 million for efforts to increase food stamp participation, an increase of 8.1 percent over FY 2012 current funding levels, as well as $1.2 million for a state supplement to SNAP benefits for certain working families.

While we are hopeful to see an increase that will support an increased number of caseworkers, it is not nearly enough to address the continually increasing caseload, nor the problems that have resulted from an understaffed and strained system.  Since 2006 the caseload has increased 300% while staffing overall has decreased by 30%.  We will continue to advocate for an increase in this line item.

Soda and Candy Sales Tax

A significant portion of funding ($51.3 million, or nearly 10 percent of the total appropriation for public health) consists of new revenue that would come from the Governor’s plan to impose the sales tax on soda and candy. The revenue would be dedicated to specific programs, such as the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention line item, and although some of these programs see increases, most of the new revenue essentially supplants existing resources—in other words, while it likely helps avoid further cuts, it does not fund new initiatives.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

The WIC Program is federally funded but receives a state subsidy, which has been level funded at $12.3 million.  There is, however, an increase in the amount that the WIC Program is authorized to retain and spend from revenue it receives from infant formula rebates and other federal measures. The increase will help the program serve more people.

Youth Summer Jobs

The line item that supports the summer jobs program for low-income youth, has received an increase of $1.6 million.  This program supports many very important programs, one of which is the YouthGROW program here in Worcester, run by the Regional Environmental Council.  This program is a youth leadership and urban agriculture program that has had an amazing impact on the youth and the community.


The Governor’s FY 2013 budget provides $1.13 billion for transportation line items and operating transfers. This represents a small decrease (0.7 percent) from current FY 2012 funding levels, though when cost inflation is taken into consideration, we can assume the result is a somewhat larger decline in actual purchasing power. The large majority ($947.0 million) of the Governor’s proposed total would go to fund the MBTA, both for debt service costs and to help support annual operating costs.  The Regional Transit Authorities are being level funded at $15 million (split between the 14 RTAs, of which there is one in Worcester, the WRTA).

The Governor provides $165.2 million to the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund (MTTF), a decrease of $14.9 million from current FY 2012 funding levels. The MTTF helps to fund Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) functions. These functions include maintaining and improving state roads, highways and bridges; maintaining and improving airports, rail and transit lines; administering the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV); and covering specific transportation-related debt service costs. This annual transfer of funds to MassDOT through the MTTF represents only a portion of the total MassDOT budget, which receives additional funds from highway and bridge tolls, gas and sales tax revenues, RMV fees, and other sources.


For more details, as well as some great charts and graphs, see the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.




Hiring for two internship positions!

The Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council is hiring two interns! We are looking to receive applications for, interview, and hire for a 1. Local Policy Action Intern and an 2. Electronic Communications Intern as soon as possible.   See the descriptions below and feel free to pass this on.  

Local Policy Action Intern

Hours: 10 hours/week

Status: Unpaid internship

The Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council seeks an undergraduate or graduate level intern to support local policy understanding and participation in Worcester as it relates to our mission and work plan. 

Duties include:

  • Review past agendas and minutes of City Council and Standing Committee and relevant City of Worcester Board and Commission Meetings and summarize outcomes/decisions. 
  • Review City Council and Standing Committee calendars and City of Worcester Commission Meetings for items that relate to our work and goals. 
  • Attend appropriate meetings and develop short summary reports, making note of topics, attendance, meeting style, outcomes, etc.
  • Develop system for keeping track of meeting notices, Committee/Commission membership, etc.
  • Develop Action Alerts for dissemination to our email list and social media sites.
  • Identify newsworthy items for our blog, e-newsletter, social media, etc. 
  • Research local policy initiatives as necessary.


  • Undergraduate (3rd or 4th year) or Graduate student in public policy, political science, community development, urban studies, or related field.
  • Strong interest in local government and public policy.
  • Strong attention to detail.
  • Ability to be a self-motivated, self-starter, keeping track of multiple tasks.
  • Excellent writing, analyzing and reporting skills.
  • Strong interest in issues related to food, health, built environment, biking/walking, a plus. 


Please send resume and cover letter to Liz Sheehan Castro at

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and position will be filled when appropriate candidate is identified.  Start date is ASAP. 

About Us:  For more information on the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council, visit:  or find us on Facebook: Worcester Food & Active Living, or Twitter: @FoodnActiveLivin

Electronic Communications Intern

Hours:  10 hours/week

Status: Unpaid internship



The Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council is seeking an Electronic Communications Intern for an unpaid position for roughly 10 hours a week during spring semester 2012 with the possibility for extension. Duties will include:

  • Updating and monitoring electronic communications (including social media, website and search engines).
  • Creating and posting unique content on a regular basis for the organization’s blog.
  • Collecting and synthesizing news from pertinent organizations/news services.
  • Maintaining and expanding social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter including tracking blog activity, and social media hits.



  • 3rd or 4th year undergraduate student or graduate students.
  • Outstanding writing skills.
  • Excellent computer skills in a variety of software including Microsoft Office Suite.
  • Proven experience with social media, online communications, and WordPress blog site necessary.
  • Strong interest in issues related to food, health, built environment, biking/walking, a plus. 
  • A motivated self-starter who is looking to build their portfolio with real on-the-job experience.
  • Ability to work independently as well as part of a team.
  • Strong attention to detail.
  • There is flexibility to take on and coordinate projects based on interest as well.


Please send resume and cover letter to Liz Sheehan Castro at    


Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and position will be filled when appropriate candidate is identified.  Start date is ASAP. 

About Us:  For more information on the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council, visit:  or find us on Facebook: Worcester Food & Active Living, or Twitter: @FoodnActiveLivin.

Yes, kids, pizza is a vegetable.

Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches

Published: November 15, 2011 NYTimes

WASHINGTON — A slice of pizza still counts as a vegetable.

In a victory for the makers of frozen pizzas, tomato paste and French fries, Congress on Monday blocked rules proposed by the Agriculture Department that would have overhauled the nation’s school lunch program.

The proposed changes — the first in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program — were meant to reduce childhood obesity by adding more fruits and green vegetables to lunch menus, Agriculture Department officials said.

The rules, proposed last January, would have cut the amount of potatoes served and would have changed the way schools received credit for serving vegetables by continuing to count tomato paste on a slice of pizza only if more than a quarter-cup of it was used. The rules would have also halved the amount of sodium in school meals over the next 10 years.

But late Monday, lawmakers drafting a House and Senate compromise for the agriculture spending bill blocked the department from using money to carry out any of the proposed rules.

In a statement, the Agriculture Department expressed its disappointment with the decision.

“While it is unfortunate that some in Congress chose to bow to special interests, U.S.D.A. remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals that improve the health of our children,” the department said in the statement.

Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away.

The companies called the Congressional response reasonable, adding that the Agriculture Department went too far in trying to improve nutrition in school lunches.

“This is an important step for the school districts, parents and taxpayers who would shoulder the burden of U.S.D.A.’s proposed $6.8 billion school meal regulation that will not increase the delivery of key nutrients,” said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive of the National Potato Council.

The Agriculture Department had estimated that the proposal would have cost about $6.8 billion over the next five years, adding about 14 cents a meal to the cost of a school lunch.

Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, said the proposed rules simply did not make sense, especially when it came to pizza.

The industry backs the current rules which say that about a quarter-cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza can count as a vegetable serving. The Agriculture Department proposal would have required that schools serve more tomato paste per piece of pizza to get a vegetable credit, an idea the industry thought would make pizza unappetizing.

The department said the change would have simply brought tomato paste in line with the way other fruit pastes and purees were credited in school meals.

Nutrition experts called the action by Congress a setback for improving the nutritional standards in school lunches and addressing childhood obesity.

“It’s a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children’s health,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group. “At a time when child nutrition and childhood obesity are national health concerns, Congress should be supporting U.S.D.A. and school efforts to serve healthier school meals, not undermining them.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 16, 2011, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches.

Chicken Testimony!

Tonight is the night: Hearing number one with the Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee. We’ll need to come out strong to make this happen. In an effort to help folks craft testimony I’m posting my draft testimony here for others to use to craft their own.

Good evening, my name is __________________________ and I live at ____________________________ or I’m here representing _____________________________organization/business/agency.
I am here to speak in favor of passing the proposed chicken hen ordinance.
Cities all over the nation have passed similar ordinances, allowing people to raise chicken hens for the purpose of eggs or to have as pets. There are many reasons why this is a good time for Worcester to pass such an ordinance. In a time of economic uncertainty and with more and more food safety issues, increasing localized control of our food systems is important for the health and safety of residents, our environment, and our food supply. In Worcester, where food security and hunger are very real issues, allowing residents to access an inexpensive source of protein is important. In addition, with our growing population of immigrant and refugee residents, many of whom have an agricultural background or connection to farming, it is also important they are able to continue to practice pieces of their heritage and enrich our city with their knowledge.
Opponents or skeptics of this ordinance fear that chickens will escape, will attract pests and predators, will be noisy, and will create problems for the department of Animal Control here in the city. These are common fears, but they are not supported by data or findings.
In 2010, a “Green Urban Policy” class at DePaul University conducted a survey of 23 municipalities – including nearby cities such as New Haven, CT; Belmont, MA; South Portland, ME; and Buffalo, NY. – that had enacted poultry ordinances between 2005 and 2009.
According to the survey, 17 of the 23 cities reported no problems with chickens getting loose. Ten cities reported finding no violations of their chicken ordinances, while five more reported four or fewer violations. Results were similar regarding a question on the number of citizen complaints about backyard chickens. Thirteen communities reported two or fewer complaints, and two indicated receiving between five and 10 complaints. One city remarked that because their ordinance required chickens to be in the coop at all times, they were having no issues with chickens getting loose or predators attacking. Our ordinance also requires chickens to be in their coop at all times as well.
Many of the cities that boast of their successful chicken ordinance programs have implemented educational programming to help residents understand how to raise chickens in compliance with the ordinance. Here in Massachusetts, the Northeast Organic Farming Association already holds regular backyard chicken raising workshops and has already offered to hold a series in Worcester for residents come Spring of 2012.
I hope you realize in considering this ordinance that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and that data has shown that with a properly written ordinance such as our proposed ordinance, issues of implementation will be minimal.
Thank you.

Safe Routes to School

This is a guest blog post by Karin Valentine Goins.  Karin worked as the Mass in Motion Coordinator for Worcester for two years, is an active member of the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council, and heads up the Active Transportation Working Group.  Karin is a walker, a biker, and a great community advocate.  This will be the first of many guest blog posts by Karin on issues of active transportation and active community environments.

I am a substitute crossing guard at my kids’ elementary school for the first two weeks of school. As an advocate for active transportation – walking or biking – and the Safe Routes to School coordinator for our school, this is a great chance to see the challenges from a different perspective. We are regular walkers and I admire the crossing guards, but now my hat goes off to them.

Safe Routes to Schools advocates 5 Es: Engineering, Enforcement, Education, Encouragement, and Evaluation. Last year the school got new concrete sidewalks around it to replace crumbling, broken ones. Following street resurfacing this summer, crosswalks in front of the school were redone using a plastic material that lasts longer than paint, is more visible, and is less slippery. New curbcuts with “detectable warning surfaces” (the bumpy yellow rectangles) warn pedestrians they are approaching a street.

So how did this affect kids’ safety getting to and from school? No more uneven sidewalk surfaces to trip on. The new crosswalks help drivers better see where people should cross. Placing temporary plastic figures in the crosswalks forced drivers to slow down. But many parents and other adults crossed kids away from the crosswalks, wandered across the street rather walking than straight across, or stopped their vehicle to let kids out in crosswalks, next to crosswalks, and in the middle of the street. Drivers also did U-turns in the middle of the street after dropping off their children and talked on cell phones as they drove past a school starting for the day.

For our school, recent Engineering changes are a big plus.  We saw evidence of the need to increase Education about safe arrivals at school, Encouragement to increase the percentage of walkers (the majority of our students live in walking distance), and Enforcement of traffic laws to complement the infrastructure improvements. International Walk to School Day is October 5 this year. Twelve Worcester Public Schools currently participate in the Massachusetts Safe Routes to Schools program and are developing their school’s approach. Call your local school and ask how you can get involved. Or join the Active Transportation work group of the Food and Active Living Policy Council. Building on the work of the city’s Mass in Motion grant, this group is tackling policy and environmental factors to get more people walking and biking. How can we better connect places so people can reach them by walking or biking? How can we create more destinations that people can reach by foot or bike? How can we make routes safer for pedestrians and bicyclists?  These are some of the questions we’ll be exploring in this group.  To get involved contact Karin Valentine Goins at

Food Day Comes to Worcester

What is Food Day?

Aimed at promoting healthy, sustainable, affordable, and just food systems in America, Food Day is a national grassroots mobilization backed by some of the most prominent voices for energizing the food movement. On October 24, 2011, people will gather at events big and small and from coast to coast in homes, schools, colleges, churches, city halls, farmers’ markets, supermarkets, and elsewhere to raise awareness about food issues and advocate for change.   Think of it as an Earth Day for food!

Spearheaded by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Day is organized around six main policy goals:

1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods

2. Support sustainable farms and limit subsidies to big agribusiness

3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger

4. Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms

5. Promote  health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids

6. Support fair working conditions for food and farm workers

Who is partnering with Food Day?

Here in Worcester the Food & Active Living Policy Council is acting as the local coordinator along with Clark University Dining Services and we are working with community partners to make Food Day a success around the City.  Congressman McGovern is also a part of the national Advisory Committee on Food Day.  A full list of advisors and partner organizations can be found at

On Saturday, October 22nd we will celebrate Food Day at the Main South Farmers’ Market located at the YMCA Central Branch on Main Street.  The market will be expanded for the day and will include restaurants vendors, chef demos, kids activities, health partners, music and more.  We will have community and school garden tours that will leave from the market highlighting the gardening being done in the Main South area.  We are also working to set up film screenings.  We hope to have a full day of activities and events for people to participate in.  On Monday, October 24th Clark University will have a full-day event on their campus open to the public as well.

How can I get involved in Food Day?

Community organizations can get involved in Food Day in a variety of ways.  You can have a table or booth at the Saturday Farmers’ Market.  You can also organize activities within your restaurant, organization, neighborhood, congregation, or school for Monday the 24th.  Host a healthy lunch potluck with staff.  Download curriculum from to use with your classroom.  Invite neighbors over for a potluck dinner and watch an inspiring movie.  Serve a “Food Day Special” on your menu.  Whatever you decide to do, we invite you to let us know so we can include it in our Community Calendar of events.  For more information or to get involved, contact Liz Sheehan Castro at or call (508)757-5631 ext. 304.  We look forward to working together to make Food Day in Worcester an incredible event!


MA School Nutrition Standards for 2012

The standards for the MA School Nutrition Bill were finalized and released on July 13th by the Public Health Council.  The standards are some of the healthiest in the nation in terms of competitive foods and a la carte food items.   The Mass Public Health Association’s Act FRESH campaign members and the School Nutrition Association have established a good partnership and will work together to promote the implementation of the new standards, which must be done by August 2012.

The standards call for limits on salt, sugar, and fat in the foods and drinks sold outside of the School Meals Program (aka breakfast and lunch).  This includes items sold in school stores, vending machines, fundraisers, and items sold for individual sale (a la carte) in the lunch line.

As implementation begins, the School Nutrition Association and ActFRESH will reach out to superintendents, parent/teacher organizations, student councils, and others across the state to promote these standards as a great tool in promoting the health of our state’s children and youth.  With obesity, diet-related diseases, and hunger all on the rise in our state, its important that we feed students the most nutritious (and delicious!) foods while they’re at school.  Schools are a place of learning – both academically and for life skills and good habits.

Luckily for Worcester students, our schools are already ahead of the curve.  No snack or soda vending machines are available to students, nor are there a la carte items in the cafeteria.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are a staple of every meal, as are whole grains.  One place where we will see a change in Worcester is as flavored milks are phased out by 2013 and only plain low-fat milk will be available to students that only wish to purchase the milk (as opposed to those that receive it as part of the purchase of a full meal, which is federally regulated and still permits flavored milks).

While schools can neither bear all the responsibility for the obesity epidemic we see (1 in 5 Worcester high school students is obese), it can neither be the only place where change takes place.  However, as part of a large community wide effort that’s working to address hunger, healthy food access, cooking and food buying skills, gardening, physical activity, the school nutrition regulations can be a major part of the solution.

Health of Worcester 2011

Worcester’s Commissioner of Public Health has been working on a new report – “The Health of Worcester 2011”.  The report presentation that Dr. Magee has giving to various groups in the City uses striking visual representations of local and state data to highlight the public health issues Worcester faces.  What rises to the top? The three primary causes of premature death in Worcester are obesity, smoking, and opiate overdose.

The report showed 27 percent of adults in Worcester are obese, and another 35 percent are overweight. The number of obese children entering the city’s schools has doubled nationally to 10 percent over the past 30 years; in the city that number exceeds 18 percent, the report said. One in five city high school students is obese, the report said, with the percentage even higher among Hispanics and low-income.

Adults in the city are also dealing with diabetes and cholesterol issues. Cardiovascular disease is the city’s number two cause of premature death. Public health officials here want to decrease obesity and people being overweight by 5 percent in five years.

The Commissioner highlights large portion size, high consumption of fast food, and poor cooking and buying habits as the culprit of this extreme increase in overweight and obesity.   While these are of course true, its also important to look at the way our environment, policies and media influence peoples general food habits.  Strategies that address individual behaviors as well as our food environments and policies are most important.  Addressing one without the other will not solve the many diet-related problems our country faces.  Obesity, hunger, and diet-related disease (among many other issues) are all just symptoms of a very broken national and international food system.

The Commissioner has given the presentation to City Council, the Food & Active Living Policy Council, the City Manager, and will continue to present the information to relevant groups and organizations that can help work together to combat the obesity issue here in Worcester.

Read the article that ran in the T&G on August 16th.

The full Health of Worcester report is available at in the Health & Safety section.

Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables

In Saturday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Mark Bittman wrote “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables”.  The article is a great, thorough examination of the benefits of removing subsidies on junk food (something I fully support), taxing junk food (something I’m wary of), and then using funds to subsidize healthier foods and make them more accessible for everyone.  While he notes that in this political climate a new tax isn’t a popular idea – if the economic, health,  and environmental benefits could be this clearly communicated in a strategic way, it may just be possible.  And if the Healthy Incentives Pilot that is underway in Hampden County, MA proves that incentives do increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP benefit holders, it could be a powerful advocacy tool.  While I don’t always jump at the idea of taxing junk food (I think removing the subsidies that support the production of corn for high fructose corn syrup and cattle feed, soy that is used for a variety of fillers, and sugar should be the real priority), the three-cents-per-ounce tax could raise significant revenues to support programs modeled after the highly successful Zero Hunger initiative of Brazil.  Overall Bitman’s article is a strong call to seriously reexamine the many soda/junk food taxes that failed in the last legislature session, but may look more appealing to bankrupt states.