Produce donations at the People's Pantry in Great Barrington. Photo: Andrew Blechman

No one goes hungry: Food pantry shifts into overdrive to feed growing need

Nobody’s selling apples on the corner for a nickel yet, but you can be sure the need has never been greater — not in anyone’s memory younger than 90.

“We’re keeping kids from going hungry. That’s what we’re doing now.”

Great Barrington — It used to be that an organization’s rapid growth was celebrated as a success story in the business pages: think Airbnb and Uber surfing the sharing economy wave, or more locally, Theory Wellness with its snaking lines of cannabis enthusiasts — all companies that hit it out of the park with an idea that struck a chord with the zeitgeist.

As we course through a second month of a freeze-framed economy and social life, that feels like a lifetime ago. Today’s champions of managing rapid growth are a more modest mission-driven bunch. Like the People’s Pantry.

For the past two decades, the People’s Pantry has reliably fed about 175 local residents a week, mainly older residents on fixed incomes or disability. And the volunteers, many from area churches and synagogues, were an older bunch, too, retired or working part-time with time and goodwill to spare. Customers arrived once a week, on Monday evenings, to St. James Church in Great Barrington. Volunteers helped them navigate the shelves of food, roughly 100 shoppers feeding themselves and sometimes a spouse back home. A half-dozen volunteers rotated through every seven weeks in teams like clockwork.

Then came the deluge, a financial one of biblical portions, practically overnight. And it continues to rain.

Volunteers at the People’s Pantry in early March prepare bags of food and other needed items to be distributed to community members. Photo courtesy the People’s Pantry

The food pantry is now open twice a week (and for increased hours), and feeds about 500 residents a week. And the line continues to grow: 200 shoppers, now feeding households averaging three to four persons, many of whom are children, in addition to those who have counted on the pantry for years now.

“We used to supplement people on tight food budgets,” said Anne Hutchinson, director of operations for the food bank, a title she’s only partly sure of because how much does that matter right now anyway? “They were older or disabled. We supplied them with additional food that concentrated on good nutrition. Now, we’re also feeding young families with no safety net, no income. We’re keeping kids from going hungry. That’s what we’re doing now.”

“And it was overnight,” Hutchinson added. “The number of people doubled overnight. And we had to figure out how to feed them, and efficiently.”

Stunning customer growth by any measure when it comes to managing it — tough in normal times, dizzying in these times. Previously reliant on ripe produce gleaned from Guido’s and Big Y, day-old bakery bread and treats, and bulk-buying of sales items, the People’s Pantry has had to innovate. Those luxuries are no longer reliable and for all practical purposes, no longer exist for the foreseeable future.

Produce is in shorter supply. Something as basic as bananas can no longer be taken for granted. Day-olds? There are no day-olds. And if there were, they’d be gone in a jiffy. Got a hankering during the Hunkering for sticky buns? Fuggedaboutit. And how much luck do you think the pantry has trying to order pallets of sale items like cereal, tomato sauce, tuna, and mac and cheese? That’s right: none. Ask a manager at Big Y if they can spare a pallet or when the next shipment is coming in and they’ll likely shrug. They don’t know because nobody knows. It’s like asking your neighbor what day it is.

“You can’t go and buy 40 pounds of bananas anymore,” Hutchinson said. “You can’t go in and buy 100 boxes of cereal anymore.” And now the People’s Pantry needs that and more like never before — a charitable organization thrust into the unknown, a hopeful finger in the dike whispering a prayer.

“We need tomato sauce,” she continued. “Thankfully we put out the word and got 200 jars. But those will be gone by the end of this week. And cereal — we really need cereal. Cereal. Cereal. Cereal. We need cereal. The families need cereal. How long do you think a box lasts in a family with two kids? I’d say about two days. We can’t buy bulk, but if people want to help, they can buy an extra box or two of cereal and help us help others.”

As supply chains creak, groan and begin to shiver and sputter, the People’s Pantry does what it can. Monthly orders from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts repository in Hatfield for 1,400 pounds of dry goods and frozen meat are now weekly orders for 2,000 pounds. How do they pick it up? The Berkshire Botanical Garden kindly donates a minibus and driver to transport the now-massive orders. Produce? Guido’s kindly picks up produce in Boston on its own weekly trips. That’s right. A food bank that cares about nutrition now provides the needy with Guido’s-level produce (minus the organic). Take a peek: The heads of broccoli are stunning. The folks at Berkshire Bounty transport it the last mile, as well any other produce wherever they can find it. Like the Berkshire County House of Correction: The hydroponic lettuce is to die for — not literally, but it’s gorgeous.

A tent donated to the People’s Pantry by Mahaiwe Tent for use during food distribution. Photo courtesy the People’s Pantry

And then there’s the actual giving away of the food in the time of coronavirus. Spring chill be darned, it’s necessarily done outside under a white tent where volunteers and shoppers can maintain a safe distance. Tables have to be set up each time: tape affixed to the sidewalk at 6-foot intervals; food schlepped and displayed with the attention it deserves and the morale it repairs. No more shopping from shelves. A whole other team of volunteers spends hours each week prepacking grocery bags with hoped-for staples and mystery delights.

And the volunteers? Mostly all new. The pantry put out a call for help and more than three dozen members of our community have answered. Volunteers in Medicine even sends a Spanish-language interpreter. It’s a team effort the way everybody has pulled together. That much is clear — clear like the water we drink, like the Green River on a summer’s day.

With a crew that was roughly as aged as the original clientele — let’s say 75 — they couldn’t afford to show up, not in that demographic. Anne Hutchinson still does. But she’s scared and wary. A nurse practitioner by profession, she knows better, but can’t stop — not yet. Her beating heart won’t let her — not until one day, hopefully soon, maybe there will be a grant that could pay for her replacement, for someone to do it as a job, instead of her ad hoc 40-plus volunteer hours a week she’s put in since coronavirus hit. And then there’s Rosemary Carpenite, Hutchinson said: “You have to mention her. She did this for a decade.”

Nobody’s selling apples on the corner for a nickel yet, but you can be sure the need has never been greater — not in anyone’s memory younger than 90.

“We aren’t supplementing food anymore,” Hutchinson explained. “We are the food. The protein and calories for families where we might be the only source. The people coming to us have no safety net. They’re not going to get $1,200 from the government or unemployment. And nobody has any idea how long any of this is going to last.

“But we’re fortunate. It’s a real a community we have: people working together to take care of each other, of our community, as best as we can.”

–––––––––––––––––––––

Here’s how you can help:

  • Write a check to “People’s Pantry,” P.O. Box 1115, Great Barrington, MA 01230.
  • Donate online here: https://www.thepeoplespantrygb.org/monetary-donations
  • Some community members of means have chosen to donate their “corona checks” to local nonprofits such as the People’s Pantry. (see below)
  • Volunteer! Query here: volunteer@peoplespantry@gmail.com
  • Bring food. A lot of donation boxes are out of reach with COVID-19, but key ones remain at the Big Y near the exit, the Co-op entrance, and at the People’s Pantry itself (Taconic Avenue across from CVS). The donation bins are checked frequently.
  • What to donate? Here’s a sampling: tomato sauce, cereal, tuna, mac and cheese, canned beans, canned fruit, canned chicken, peanut butter, oranges, apples, bananas, granola bars, toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, bath soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and backyard eggs or veggies. If you got ‘em and wanna share ‘em, bring ‘em. They need ‘em.

More on the corona checks

At first shy about using her name, Patty Melville, the librarian at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, decided to “go public” about donating her federal stimulus check after Fred Clark wrote about donating his on The Edge. “My husband, Thomas, and I are doing all right,” Melville explained. “Not great, but all right. I’m driving around in a 14-year-old car, but I’m able to feed my family, and that’s what’s important. But a lot of people aren’t doing all right, and they can’t feed their families. My husband and I knew we had to do something to help. That’s why we donated our check to the food pantry. It wasn’t a difficult decision. We just knew it was the right thing to do.”

Just the facts, please

The People’s Pantry

  • 5 Taconic Ave. (across from CVS) at Saint James Place in Great Barrington
  • Open to shoppers Mondays from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • The People’s Pantry is open to all residents of south Berkshire County. There are no income guidelines and shoppers are welcome to visit once a week all year.
  • The People’s Panty is entirely run by volunteers from the community.