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CHP’s Food Bank: Trying to stop ‘spiraling poverty’ with food and help

“Families are frightened, scared and beaten down. What the staff and I do is give them the strength to go to the other organizations, to get through this and get past this.” --- Michelle Derr, CHP director of WIC [Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program] Family Services

Great Barrington — The food won’t be handed out until noon, but Ginny Dawson is first in line two hours earlier to make sure she gets what she needs to feed herself and her family.

The New Marlborough resident is one of around 200 to 225 locals who show up to the food bank the first Tuesday of every month outside Community Health Programs (CHP) off Stockbridge Road. This is just one of CHP’s programs meant to help people during rough times, and one gateway to help them out of what Michelle Derr, CHP director of WIC [Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program] Family Services, calls a “spiraling poverty.”

The distribution begins at noon, but people start getting in line as early as 10 a.m. Photo: Heather Bellow
The distribution begins at noon, but people start getting in line as early as 10 a.m. Photo: Heather Bellow

Dawson tells me she lost her job in March and is taking care of her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. Dawson’s been “following the food trucks” ever since. She said the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts trucks also hit Torrington, Connecticut, the second Tuesday of each month, and Canaan, Connecticut, on the third Thursday.

As containers of squash, carrots, cabbage and other staples are rolled out of the truck at the distribution tent next to the parking lot — which is overflowing, by the way — Dawson says these food banks “stretch her budget.” She’ll go home and make soup, she says, and then freeze some.

When the onions are rolled out, everyone gets excited. Dawson says the onions are key. And Brian Marks of Housatonic is already talking about what he’ll make with what’s on offer today. “Candied sweet potatoes, cole slaw, spaghetti sauce.”

Marks says he’s been coming to the food bank for a couple of years. “It helps me and a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a nice thing the food bank does.”

The line is now very long. There are young families, the elderly, and 20-somethings.

The food is a mix of farm surplus and purchases made with funding, says Mary Feuer, WIC assistant program director at CHP Family Services. She said Stop & Shop funds “a lot of these trucks.”

Feuer is the one who got this program rolling around two years ago, one that is “so successful” it helped secure funding that will start another food bank through CHP’s North Adams center.

Assistant Director of WIC Family Services Mary Feuer looks at incoming sweet potatoes delivered by driver Evan Kravec. The blue bins contain frozen meat. Photo: Heather Bellow
Assistant Director of WIC Family Services Mary Feuer examines incoming sweet potatoes delivered by driver Evan Kravec. The blue bins contain frozen meat. Photo: Heather Bellow

And this time there’s frozen meat. Sometimes there are eggs, Feuer says, and lately there’s been bread from Richard Bourdon at Berkshire Mountain Bakery, which food bank volunteer Bill Nappo picks up. And today there’s even dog and cat food.

A nutritionist comes to make sure people have recipes for what’s available.

“A lot of the community really helps us,” Feuer added, noting that, on this day every month, other agencies like fuel assistance and Head Start come to make this a one-stop deal for anyone having a tough time. Sometimes the dental truck comes.

Derr said it isn’t hard for one setback to trigger that “spiraling down into deep poverty,” and that’s why CHP tries to capture as many people as possible before they hit that point. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The food bank, which doesn’t require proof of income level, is one way they get people here for a host of other services, advice delivered in the true spirit of social work and a “no judgment” attitude.

And CHP is where mothers participating in the WIC program come to pick up their benefits for buying food. Derr threw out a surprising statistic: 53 percent of all infants born in the U.S. receive WIC benefits; that number is a bit less in Massachusetts.

“What we’re seeing is that poverty is more than just not having enough money,” Derr said, as a CHP playgroup — another way the nonprofit helps educate and support parents—is in full swing outside her office. There are “layers” like mental illness or lack of daycare and “being a single mom…with husbands, boyfriends, fiancés who have left them because the situation has become so dire…”

Nutritionist Julia Jarvis, left, and CHP lactation specialist MaryBeth Merritt run the bread table outside Family Services. Bread is courtesy of Berkshire Mountain Bakery. Photo: Heather Bellow
Nutritionist Julia Jarvis, left, and CHP lactation specialist MaryBeth Merritt run the bread table outside Family Services. Bread is courtesy of Berkshire Mountain Bakery. Photo: Heather Bellow

While she says all of this is “anecdotal,” these same stories repeat constantly.

Transportation problems can aggravate an already fragile world, Derr says. There’s the one-car family when both parents work, and people getting tied to the BRTA [Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority] bus schedule. She noted that the bus doesn’t run to Sheffield, and she knows one mother there who, in order to get to CHP by bus to pick up her WIC benefits, has to take a cab to the Big Y bus stop in Great Barrington—with her two children and their car seats.

Another “common” problem, she said, is parents who can’t afford the gas to visit their premature babies that had to be delivered at hospitals in Springfield or Boston. What they don’t know is that there is a program through MassHealth that will pay for it, and this is another place where Family Services steps in. Derr says so many families are simply too “overwhelmed” to research their options and know where to turn, and “pride” often gets in the way of seeking help.

And if you have a medical problem, Derr adds, “you go down so fast to the poverty level—it’s rough.”

Then there are the undocumented residents with another layer of compounding factors, some of which are nightmarish, Derr says.

“If you have a child who was born here and is a citizen, you are in constant fear because you may be deported, but your child would go into foster care.”

“Does that actually happen?” I say.

“This is common,” she says. “Families won’t leave their house if they hear the INS [Immigration Naturalization Service] is here.”

Volunteer Karen Smith gets a high five. Photo: Heather Bellow
Volunteer Karen Smith gets a high five. Photo: Heather Bellow

Then there are the language barriers, transportation and driver’s license issues. With these, “it’s hard to find a job,” she said.

Derr says CHP doesn’t have any data on how many undocumented residents get medical or other services at CHP, but, she says, from what she sees, the numbers are “significant.”

“We don’t ask if they’re documented or not, but eventually they will tell us,” Derr said. “We’re trying to build trust here. They are people and their children are citizens.”

Back outside at the growing food bank line-up, volunteer Karen Smith is doing her mock drill sergeant routine and has everyone laughing. She later tells me that her specialty here is keeping the mood light so no one feels ashamed to be here. “We’re here to be joyful,” she says.

And that is the mood. The volunteers are also happy. The parking lot, with one attendant trying to manage the chaos, is another story, and Derr says a feeling a deprivation prompts everyone to come to the food bank at the same time thinking the food may disappear before their turn. “We’re trying to tell people they don’t have to come right at noon.”

Derr says one of the ways she sees the role of Family Services is to make sure the young children whose parents are struggling are ready to go to kindergarten. She wants them to have a good start so they can make good choices as they get older.

“Families are frightened, scared and beaten down,” she said. “What the staff and I do is give them the strength to go to the other organizations, to get through this and get past this.”

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