Many families around the Commonwealth are heading into the New Year facing food insecurity. As of September, an estimated 21.9% of Massachusetts households with children do not have access to sufficient or quality food, according to a U.S. Census survey. It’s an issue that the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston is working on.

GBH’s Morning Edition co-host Jeremy Siegel sat down with CEO Robert Lewis Jr. and Michael Curry, a board member of the Boys and Girls Club and head of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, to talk about what should be done. This transcript has been lightly edited.  

Jeremy Siegel: So, Michael, I'll start with you. How significant is the issue of food insecurity in Massachusetts?

Michael Curry: Well, you know, Robert knows I always start with a quote by Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American physician in the country. In 1864 — and I want people to take that in for a moment, 19th century, 1864 — she said, "they seem to forget there's a cause for every ailment and [that] it may be in their power to remove it." Food insecurity is one of those. That's what we now understand to be a social determinant of health, right? Your mental health, your physical health, your teeth, your overall wellness depends on your access to food, your access to healthy food. So when you think about these disturbing numbers of people who are food insecure, it's a challenge for all of us that if we want our children to thrive, we've got to take this seriously.

Siegel: Robert, as Michael said, this is an issue that something can be done to fix. Your organization is launching an effort to fight the lack of access to food in Massachusetts. What sort of work are you doing?

Robert Lewis Jr.: We're serving over 5,000 young folks as members and so many other young folks that we're serving. Knowing that we need to provide them with healthy meals and a healthy snack every day is critical. And I always think about when our young folks get up in the morning to go to school, right, and they're leaving to go to school, we're hoping that they're going to have a healthy meal before they leave. But while they're out waiting at the corners or taking the MBTA, what's open for them? Variety stores, Dunkin' Donuts in places, and it's all just fast food and sugar.

So we're really looking, we're going to continue to provide healthy meals and healthy food for young folks. We're going to continue to partner with institutions, like if it's Star Market, Stop & Shop, BJ's and others, around healthy food, healthy vegetables, and really continuing to ensure that our young folks, the biggest thing is to have access. And we want to make sure they have access, while also: How do we educate their parents about healthy food and about healthy access?

Siegel: And, Robert, when you're talking about the communities that you're working with, the families and the children that your organization aims to help, who specifically are you talking about? What sort of demographics are coming to your organization for help?

Lewis: You know, one thing between Boston and Chelsea that's important: 86% of our kids identify as BIPOC kids. And I want to say we're right in the heart of the neighborhoods. And it's not just like I said, the young folks we serve, you know, their parents are the ones dropping them off.

Siegel: Michael, what sort of effect does it have on children not to have access to food, to quality and healthy food?

Curry: I mean, the science is there, right? For brain development, it's critical that you have access to food and healthy food in order to concentrate. We know, and Robert is squarely focused on the broader issues that his young people are experiencing. We know that test scores are down in the wake of COVID. We know that students are struggling in math and English. We know the ripple effect of that, if they're not getting into colleges and going on to successful careers and being the best them that we need them to be. Food is critical to that, right? We know that we need to get people access to food in a way that's timely and that's healthy.

So we know that. One of the things I always say is pay now or pay greater later. I use that in the health care concept. Pay now means invest in young people, invest in their education, invest in their growth and development, invest in them having access to food, and you won't end up paying greater later when they're sick, when they're unemployed, when they're dealing with trauma or the manifestations of trauma in their lives.

Lewis: What Michael said is exactly right. And here's what we also have to do, too, on top of this: It's important for us as we're investing in this, that we're educating our own staff, we're educating our board and our partners and others, because it's also about us being culturally competent on healthy food as well, because, you know, the demographics of folks that we serve.

Siegel: Well, that kind of gets to the last thing I wanted to ask both of you about, and either of you can feel free to chime in first. You're both so passionate about fighting this issue and seem confident that something can be done about it. But the numbers are staggering here: 21.9%, almost 22% of households [with children] in the state facing this issue. Do you have confidence that this trend surrounding food insecurity is something that the state can curb?

Curry: You know, I come out of a movement, right? The work that I do, representing 52 health centers across the Commonwealth, 22 in Boston, serving one out of seven people in the state and one out of two, out of every two people in Boston, we serve at a community health center. This movement was born out of significant odds, right? When we talk about health disparities and inequities, communities who are dealing [with] racism and voter suppression. We think about Robert's population that he serves, 70% of the patients we serve in the Commonwealth are racially and ethnically diverse patients. This takes dreaming big. If we all lock arms with our policymakers, with our health care providers, with our health systems, and say, we can do this, it's as big as the New Deal or as any other major policy advancement in the country, we can bring those numbers down and we can address it.

Lewis: Thank you, Michael. And I'd like to say, we have to. Like, we have to. We're talking about a generation where we're coming from the pandemic. But even before the pandemic, a lot of inequities. We knew that, right? So this isn't new. If we don't invest in this even now — and I'm saying because we can talk about it this moment — we're going to lose a generation. And we can't afford that because our economy is looking for, we're looking for, a skilled and educated workforce. These are the young folks we're investing in right now.

Paris Alston: That was my co-host, Jeremy Siegel, speaking with Robert Lewis Jr. and Michael Curry. And just a note that Michael Curry is a member of the GBH Board of Advisors. You're listening to GBH's Morning Edition.