Image courtesy Berkshire Grown

Heightened food insecurity spreads amid COVID-19 outbreak

A growing sea of similar stories that swell amid these trying times - when kids are out of school, parents are out of work, and the infrastructure of community that so many rely upon in order to survive feels tenuous at best.

Great Barrington — Last Friday, the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market made a simple post to Instagram: “Will you help us feed our neighbors that need help?” Within an hour, market manager Bridgette Stone received a pair of donations from local farmers — several hundred pounds of produce — that will be directed to food access sites across South County. This anecdote is but one in a growing sea of similar stories that swell amid these trying times — when kids are out of school, parents are out of work, and the infrastructure of community that so many rely upon in order to survive feels tenuous at best.

“[The current situation is certainly] shedding light on how we don’t take care of the most vulnerable among us,” Stone said by phone earlier this week. Once meal distribution for school-aged students was sorted (see article here), a growing group of community partners have turned their attention toward coordinating efforts for the increasing numbers of local residents who find themselves without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. “How do we help a neighbor that we don’t know, and don’t know they need help?” was the rhetorical question on Stone’s mind when we spoke. Her answer came quickly: Start by feeding them. Following Gov. Baker’s orders that restaurants throughout the Commonwealth close for on-site food consumption, several local eateries cleared out their coffers of perishable food and donated items that wouldn’t keep — from salad mix to quarts of frozen soup (which made its way to the People’s Pantry at Saint James Place). “People are really stepping up and helping one another, but it’s going to be a long process,” Stone stressed.

Image courtesy Berkshire Grown

Berkshire Grown, the mission of which is to keep farmers farming, is an integral piece of the puzzle. Namely, if we are to count local farmers as part of the solution, we need to support them in whatever way we can. “I’m so grateful to people for supporting the need to feed our community members who continue to experience food insecurity, and to support our farmers who continue to grow fresh food and supply it to all of us,” said Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, in a written statement. The nonprofit has compiled a comprehensive list of farms in the region that are “offering food for sale, in a myriad of ways.” One example: Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm will be hosting a pop-up veggie sale Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at her farm on Jug End Road in South Egremont.

Moulton went on to explain that the annual Spring Supper, scheduled for Monday, April 6, has been cancelled. That said, there is a silver lining: “Many people who had purchased tickets are converting those funds to donations [and we are] using the money to help pay for some of the donations of fresh local food to pantries,” Moulton explained. With the GBFM season opening still seven weeks away and Saturday’s Berkshire Grown winter market having been cancelled, people’s ability to use the Market Match and HIP benefits have been thwarted — and food distribution sites are feeling the pinch.

Image courtesy Berkshire Grown

Demand for provisions at the People’s Pantry in Great Barrington has increased; even with resources like the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts close at hand (designed to offer below market-rate produce in large quantities to smaller distribution sites), the absence of transport vehicles creates an obstacle. Earlier in the week, Stone reached out to her employer — Michael Beck, executive director at Berkshire Botanical Garden — and asked if she could pull the seats out of the nonprofit’s transport van in order to haul produce. “He said yes, 100% without a doubt,” Stone relayed, exhibiting yet another way in which individuals (and organizations) are choosing to work together in creative ways. The People’s Pantry is accepting donations of nonperishable food items during its regular hours, which have increased from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays to include Mondays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. The organization is continuing to adjust its methods of distributing food to shoppers to lessen the risk of exposure to shoppers, volunteers, suppliers and supporters. Cash donations are being accepted online at www.peoplespantrygb.org.

Community Health Programs is also coordinating efforts to bolster its food pantry and cache of supplies for families with young children (the South County WIC office is on premises). In addition to shelf-stable food items (with an emphasis on high-protein foods and gluten-free/nut-free options), there is an increased need for personal hygiene items, including diapers (larger sizes for toddlers) and formula. That said, coordinators are reminding everyone to avoid bulk/panic purchases, even for donations, as this diminishes the supply available to others who are in need of these items. Berkshire Bounty is another essential cog in the wheel; the nonprofit has access to cold storage, volunteers and drivers; in other words, “there are folks ready to distribute this food, especially to compromised individuals who should not be leaving their homes and need to get to the distribution sites,” said Stone. Donations can be made online at berkshire-bounty.org, and a statement on the website reiterates: “Your dollars will go directly to purchasing protein-rich food at below retail prices, for distribution at several of our partner organizations. Hopefully this crisis will subside in the not too distant future, but in the meantime, we hope to direct the local community’s support, to immediately put food on the table.”

Image courtesy Berkshire Grown

Details continue to unfold as to how individuals can help; in the meantime, Berkshire Grown has created a short list:

  • If you’re running errands and buying groceries and goods, prioritize supporting local farms and businesses more than ever. They need your support.
  • Please buy directly from farmers whenever possible and shop at local retailers who support farmers — ex. Guido’s, Berkshire Food Co-op, Wild Oats Market, and Random Harvest.
  • You can find general information about local farms and food on Berkshire Grown’s website and in Berkshire Grown’s online guide, including year-round farm stands and more.
  • Tip service workers generously.
  • Cash flow is an issue for local businesses when sales are interrupted. If you’re thinking of signing up for a summer farm share, now is the time.
  • Consider buying gift cards at restaurants, farm stands and other local businesses to provide them with needed income now, and use them when things have normalized.
  • Community agencies that serve hungry people need support now, too. If you are able, donate and volunteer your time.
  • If you have backyard chickens and want to donate eggs, CHP (442 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington, (413) 528-0457, Mon-Fri  9 a.m.–4 p.m. and People’s Pantry (352 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230) are both accepting donations.

Hourly workers who have lost wages continue to have bills; the elderly are more isolated and may not have access to the supplies they need. “Communities can lift each other up in times of crisis with small acts of kindness,” Stone reiterated. “And we can keep taking care of one another, [even] when we can’t be together.”