BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)– Six months after Beacon Hill steered $3.7 million toward anti-hunger efforts at college campuses in Massachusetts, advocates and legislative supporters are calling for passage of a bill they say would build a framework to put that money to use.

The $4 billion bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed in December to spend surplus state tax dollars and federal COVID-19 relief funds included $44.8 million in food security investments, of which $3.7 million focuses on the needs of college students. That $3.7 million is divided between $2.7 million for a community college campus hunger pilot program, and $1 million for a hunger-free campus grant program within the Department of Higher Education.

Bills to officially create the hunger-free campus grant program (S 2811, H 4697) were advanced by the Higher Education Committee last month and are now before the House and Senate Ways and Means committees.

Supporters held a virtual press conference Wednesday to make their case for getting that legislation over the finish line in the last two months of formal lawmaking business for the session, a time when many priorities are competing to earn a spot on the agenda.

“This is more than just a nice idea,” Rep. Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat, said. “This is concrete legislation that can get done, that has been vetted, and that will make a huge difference in the lives of students across the Commonwealth. So let’s not only develop the reputation for Massachusetts being a great place for higher ed, let’s develop a reputation for Massachusetts being a place where no student goes hungry.”

Dr. Mattie Castiel, Worcester’s commissioner for health and human services, said 37 percent of students at public colleges and universities in Massachusetts experience food insecurity and those numbers are highest for Latino, Black and LGBT populations. “These inequities continue due to increasing inflation, poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, chronic health conditions and systemic racism,” she said. “We have seen a tripling rise in applications for SNAP benefits and a demand for more food in the food pantries.”

The bills would create a hunger-free campus grant program to address food insecurity at public higher education institutions, authorize the Department of Higher Education to hire a director for the program and conduct surveys to gauge need, and require annual reporting to the Legislature. “I believe this legislation will increase awareness of existing resources as well as create wraparound services on college campuses,” Hae In Kim of Boston’s food justice office said. She said that only 20 percent of food-insecure students currently use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Via a pre-recorded video message, Congressman Jim McGovern said he wanted to voice support for “the incredible legislative push happening in Massachusetts to strengthen hunger-free campus initiatives.”

The White House last month announced plans to hold a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, and McGovern said he will work to make campus hunger “a central point of discussion” at that summit.