photo courtesy of ben downing
Berkshire Sen. Ben Downing (right) with Reps. Paul Mark (left) and Smitty Pignatelli at the Price Rite in Pittsfield.
The New SNAP Diet
Last week, state Sen. Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield) posted on his Facebook page the receipt from his weekly trip to the grocery store.
Another example of oversharing in this day of hyper personal documentation? No; Downing was illustrating what it’s like to live on the $31.50 weekly food budget of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipient. Downing and his fellow members of the Berkshire delegation had signed up for the “SNAP Challenge,” which asks participants to spend one week living on food stamp benefits.
The campaign aims to draw attention to the ongoing battle in Congress over funding for SNAP, which is part of the federal farm bill. Last month, the House defeated a farm bill that included $20.5 billion in cuts to the program over 10 years—a figure that was too low for some conservatives and too high for progressives, including U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts’ 2nd District. McGovern, whose district includes large parts of the Valley, has been leading the charge to preserve SNAP funding, working with Progressive Democrats of America. (He’s also taken the SNAP Challenge himself.) At deadline, Congress was considering removing the food aid program from the farm bill in the hopes of at least passing proposed agricultural policy. Right now, SNAP accounts for about 80 percent of the farm bill.
Last week, in between his SNAP-level meals (his receipt showed him buying rice, spaghetti sauce, oatmeal and a modest amount of fresh produce), Downing Tweeted and Facebooked about poverty in the region—noting, for instance, that one in five kids in the four western counties lives in a “food insecure” household.
Want to take the challenge yourself? The Hartford-area food bank Foodshare offers guidelines and suggested menus at its website: www.foodshare.org.•
As Credit Unions Prosper, Banks Attack Them
After Bank of America set off a firestorm of rage in 2011 when it proposed to add a $5 monthly fee for the use of debit cards, bank customers the country over, already disgusted with steep fees and the government’s coddling of the so-called Too Big to Fail banks, reacted by pulling their money from the larger banks and putting it into smaller institutions.
One of the most visible results of that “Move Your Money” drive was the growth of credit unions, including those in the Valley. Springfield’s Freedom Credit Union, the Valley’s largest credit union, took in $1 million a week in new business for three years between 2009 and 2012.
Growth like that now has the large banks determined to make further expansion difficult for the credit unions, and they’re moving to get Congress to take away the tax exemption credit unions have enjoyed since 1934. Credit unions get the exemptions because they have no shareholders; they’re organized as nonprofits whose depositors benefit when they prosper.
In 2000, according to the federal Treasury Department, the average credit union had $41 million in assets. Today, bankers claim, there are 200 credit unions that have $1 billion or more in assets, and the large credit unions have outgrown their right to be tax-exempt. It’s still the case, however, that credit unions are prohibited from raising money through stock offerings, as banks do.
The American Bankers’ Association has mounted an ad campaign about the exemption issue, complete with a letter to President Obama from ABA president Frank Keating. “Many tax-exempt credit unions have morphed from serving ‘people of small means’ to become full-service, financially sophisticated institutions,” Keating wrote the White House. “The time has come to abolish this exemption.”
But Fred R. Becker Jr., president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, said credit unions would be hard pressed to survive without the exemption. “They’ll have to convert to banks, which is what the banks want,” Becker told the Los Angeles Times. “Then they’d have, for lack of a better term, a monopoly.”•
Can You Watch Us Now?
As concerns over National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping linger like the hazy, humid days of summer, U.S. Rep Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) recently introduced a new bill called the We Are Watching You Act that would protect consumers against having cameras and microphones monitoring them from cable boxes and other devices without their knowledge while they are watching television.
The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep Walter Jones (R-N.C.), comes in response to reports that Verizon is seeking to patent digital video recording (DVR) technology that would record what people are doing in their homes while they watch television.
At press time, the bill had not yet been put to a vote.
“Given what we have recently learned about the access that the government has to the phone numbers we call, the emails we send and the websites we visit, it is important for consumers to decide for themselves whether they want this technology,” said Capuano. “Think about what you do in the privacy of your own home and then think about how you would feel sharing that information with your cable company, their advertisers and your government.”
“Allowing this type of technology to be installed in the homes of individuals without their consent would be an egregious invasion of privacy,” added Jones.
The patent application for “Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User” was filed by Verizon back in May, 2011, and made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office late last fall.
According to Verizon’s request, DVRs will be able to distinguish various “ambient actions” such as exercising, eating, reading, laughing, talking, humming, cleaning, cuddling and fighting, and then present the watcher(s) with the appropriately matching advertisements.
“Verizon’s set-top box,” the website TechHive reports, “would even parse words from your conversations and detect moods to better market to you; the patent application describes sensing a viewer’s stress and advertising aromatherapy candles or a resort.”
While similar “ideas for monitoring technology implementation” have been pursued by other companies such as Comcast and Google, notes TechHive, they have yet to enter the marketplace.
Nevertheless, Capuano is urging Congress to be proactive in passing legislation pertaining to this technology.
“Too often,” says the Congressman, “Congress is far behind when it comes to advancements in technology and is forced to update regulations that are decades old so that they are meaningful for today’s innovations. The ‘We Are Watching You Act’ does not prohibit companies from developing this technology. It simply lets consumers make their own decisions about whether or not it belongs in their homes.”
Bringing Back the Gooseberry
Who knew—except for berry farmers, Victorian history buffs, or a state representative from an agricultural district—that in many communities in Massachusetts it’s a violation of state regulations to grow gooseberries?
These days, in fact, not everyone knows what a gooseberry is.
It’s a pale green or red berry with a delicate skin. The green ones looks almost like green grapes, only paler and larger.
Our ancestors favored the gooseberry for jam and pies, or it’s good just to eat by the fistful. A jar of them in the icebox in the summer makes a luscious, cooling treat because they have a refreshing flavor that’s not so sweet that you get tired of them.
Unfortunately the gooseberry is outlawed in large parts of Massachusetts, including Greenfield and several other towns in Franklin County, because it’s host to a disease that afflicts white pine. State representative Steve Kulik (D-Worthington) is working to get the law prohibiting gooseberry cultivation off the books. It’s time, he says, to bring the gooseberry back to Massachusetts.
“Gooseberries have a lot of antioxidants, and in Europe they are consumed for health reasons,” Kulik told the Advocate. “It’s something I’ve been working on for years and I can’t get the MDAR [Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources] to come along. It’s a DAR regulation; it’s not a law. It ought to be changed.”
The gooseberry has the potential to be more than a home garden crop, Kulik said; it could become a commodity for area farmers.
“I’ve talked with one grower who does a lot of shipment of berry plants, and they’ve had a lot of requests to be able to provide these,” he said. “They were banned in New York as well, and they lifted that ban.”• —SK
Northampton Must Upgrade Flood Control System
In a season of sudden rainstorms and flood threats, Northampton is deciding how to meet requirements from the Army Corps of Engineers to reinforce its flood control system. The system, which protects the city from rising water on the Mill and Connecticut rivers, is more than 70 years old and in need of overhauling; if it is not updated, the downtown itself could suffer damage in a flood.
The ACE, which has been vigilant about municipal flood control since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, has given the Northampton system a grade of “minimally acceptable,” meaning that it will function the very next time a flood hits the city but will likely fail in the longer term.
Last year a report done for the city’s Public Works department by consultants Camp, Dresser and McKee recommended replacing the flood control pumping station at the Hockanum Road wastewater treatment plant because the equipment is so old that parts could not be replaced. The cost of a newly equipped station would be $17.4 million, the consultant estimated.
The cost of needed improvements to Northampton’s entire flood control and stormwater system, which could reach $100 million over 20 years, has caused painful deliberations in the city. A special task force organized to deal with the problem is recommending a new enterprise fund to be financed by fees from property owners, including businesses, tax-exempt entities like Smith College, and owners of undeveloped land.
The plan calls for homeowners to be charged over $100 a year ($110 to $144 for a single-family house, depending on which of two models the City Council approves).
Northampton is not the only town in the Valley that is under a mandate to fix its flood control system. Chicopee has spent $10 million during the last five years on maintenance for its system, and early this year was faced with another $1.8 million expenditure for repairs to avoid losing its FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) certification. If the city lost that certification, flood insurance for property owners there could become extremely expensive.• —SK
M&M Trail Goes National
The M&M Trail is now federally designated as the New England National Scenic Trail, and has a new life under the aegis of the National Park Service. The 215-mile trail, which runs from Long Island Sound to Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, has been rerouted: hikers take note. One 22-mile stretch that previously ran from Pelham to Wendell over private land has been moved to the state-owned Quabbin watershed area east of Rte. 202. Hikers are advised not to walk along the old trail in the rerouted area because the trail markers have been painted over, and those patches will no longer be maintained. The new parts of the trail are still being marked and groomed.
The trail also has a staffer, Joshua Surette, who will organize volunteers to help maintain it, deal with private landowners whose property it passes over, and be the contact person for groups that use the trail regularly and help monitor and maintain it, such as the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. For more information, visit the trail’s Web page at www.nps.gov/neen/index.htm (the website was still under construction at press time).• —SK