Sheffield — Weekends can be particularly stressful for those dealing with food insecurity; thankfully, the conversation continues to evolve across Berkshire County now that local schools have been shuttered for four full weeks. In Sheffield, a handful of faith-based and community-minded partners have come together to provide two vulnerable populations — families with school-aged children and the elderly — with hot meals over the weekend. Rev. Erik Karas, rector at Christ Trinity Church, is working with his colleagues and the community to address food access. Last weekend, their collective efforts resulted in 81 community-sponsored meals for local families plus 75 grant-funded meals for seniors. In a world in which the new normal revolves around COVID-19 statistics going viral, this kind of growth is entirely feel-good.
“This is the good sort of exponential growth,” Karas said in a phone interview on Friday morning — Good Friday, for those who celebrate Easter. “I was blown away by the community response,” he added of the Family of 4 Food Project, which, in its inaugural week, provided 56 community-supported meals. Karas, along with faith-based leaders at Hevreh, Old Parish Church and Our Lady of the Valley, worked with the Marketplace in Sheffield to organize weekend meals to be shared with families in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District who have been receiving breakfast and lunch through the district since classes were cancelled March 13. The Food Project’s genesis stemmed from two places: first, the knowledge that weekends are particularly challenging for those facing food insecurity; second, there are a whole bunch of people who want to help and have [seemingly] nothing to do. “Schools really did a champion job getting breakfast and lunches out to their kids on a daily basis,” said Karas, noting that roughly half of the SBRSD student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. “The problem for people who want to help during this pandemic is we can’t come together as a group of volunteers to help — that defeats the whole premise of social distancing.”
The Family of 4 Food Project eradicates that conundrum and allows for community members to sponsor a meal for a family in need. A district-wide email to families last week outlined the process:
- Call the Marketplace Cafe by Tuesday afternoon at (413) 248-5040 and press 2.
- Identify your purchase as being for SBRSD families and that you are purchasing the family of four dinner (cost $24.95).
- Pay for your purchase with a credit card (no need to handle cash or go to the Marketplace).
- Based on the number of orders received, the Marketplace will do the purchasing on Wednesday and create the meals, and the meals will be delivered to campus on Friday to Jeremy Wells for distribution to families in need.
- The Marketplace has a flyer that it will be attaching to every meal packet explaining the conditions under which the food has been prepared, how to handle the package the family is receiving, and how to prepare the food in the packet.
“The idea was to give the community some way to care, which they were aching to do; to give a local establishment some extra business; and to feed families,” said Karas. To date, the tri-fold plan is not only working but also gaining steam. Last week, Karas applied for a grant through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County. The fund, offered through Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, was designed to aid frontline human services organizations that have deep roots in the community and strong experience working with vulnerable populations. These rapid-response grants are designed to address gaps in services and increase capacity of organizations to meet basic needs of individuals and families. In order to move resources quickly, there is a rolling application process for fund requests of up to $25,000 through BTCF partner Berkshire United Way.
“We rolled [the Family of 4 Food Project] out without the grant,” Karas said, noting that his application was approved last Monday. That evening, the district’s goal of 60 meals was met; “we had 81 community-sponsored meals by the time Tuesday’s noon deadline came,” he reported. Karas wrote the grant so that funds would cover the difference between what the district needed and what the community donated. Clearly, no grant money was needed this past week, so Karas reached out to Dan Smith of John Andrews Farmhouse Restaurant in South Egremont and purchased 75 weekend meals for senior citizens. “These meals will take the seniors through the weekend when they don’t have Meals on Wheels,” Karas explained. The grant, funded for 10 weeks total, will continue to go toward meals for seniors, assuming community support remains. “This project is just constantly evolving,” said Karas, who is now working with a group of concerned citizens at the Sheffield Senior Center and the Sheffield Council on Aging to develop a list of individuals in the area who would benefit from these weekend meals. In response to community request, those who wish to contribute to the COVID-19 Elder Meals Program may do so by visiting www.christtrinitychurch.org and clicking on the desired drop-down menu; 100% of donations will go toward buying senior meals.
“Our whole goal has been rapid response,” said Candace Winkler, executive director of Berkshire United Way. “We know time is of the essence when talking about basic needs like food,” she added in a phone interview last week. Winkler called the restaurant project “an innovative one.” In Pittsfield, where the city has been providing food to families during the week, weekends remain a challenge. “The idea was to work with local restaurants and double the bottom line,” Winkler said of the program that not only feeds families who are struggling, but also feeds funds into local restaurants that are also struggling. In Pittsfield, BUW has been working with eight to 10 local eateries, some of which are offering takeout while others simply reached out with excess food before shuttering their doors March 24 when Gov. Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to close. Prior to last weekend, the organization had distributed about 2,000 meals in this fashion; a pilot project provided 100 meals in Adams last weekend, and South County has joined efforts as well.
Winkler said her nonprofit is mainly coordinating with Jake McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools, who has been successful — through his myriad channels that includes nonprofits and elected officials — in sending out messages to families who would benefit. “We are trying to balance the public health mandates that call for social isolation while getting [families] the things that they need,” Winkler said. Volunteers are wearing masks and gloves, serving one family at a time, while distributing meals that range from sandwiches to spaghetti and meatballs. “There is no real way to means test,” said Winkler, who reports long lines of people standing in the rain to pick up meals. That said, grant funds are essentially supporting what she calls “a whole ecosystem” that includes farms, restaurants and families. “It’s clear that the food is getting where it is needed,” she added, noting another stark reality: “Families who have not experienced food insecurity suddenly find themselves in this boat. It is pervasive.”
Back in Sheffield, Karas is hopeful. “If [the community] continues to sponsor meals at the level [they have been], we will likely deliver 60 meals to school on Friday and [and any additional meals donated] on Monday,” he said in a nod to Mondays and Fridays presenting the most prevalent food insecurity. “We will make sure every meal that gets sponsored gets used with local students, absolutely.”