Hunger, or what some call "food insecurity," is becoming a serious issue in the Berkshires. People who have never before considered eating at free meal sites or shopping at food pantries are doing so in growing numbers around the county, observers say.

Arnie Sears, who runs the Veterans' Pantry in Lanesborough every Friday, said the New Year is seeing more and more people coming in.

"We're up to 125 people," he said. "Last year it was 85 at this time."

On the first Saturday of the year, 93 people came to get food at the Lee Food Pantry coordinated by Susan Gore.

Ellen Merritt, executive director of the Christian Center in Pittsfield, said that she sees about 300 regular shoppers at the center's food pantry. With repeat visits, they can number 30 a day.

About 40 people came to the free community lunch at St. Stephen's Table in Pittsfield on the first Saturday of this month. Coordinator Maribeth Barney said usually it would be 25 so early in the month; 40 diners is a 60 percent uptick.

John Moore, who brought St. Joseph's Table to South Congregational Church in Pittsfield 18 years ago, said the number of people eating the dinners every Wednesday and Thursday has not changed -- an average of 66 each week -- but "we have quite a bit more families using the pantry ... upwards of 250 families a week. Last year it was 175."

He said a number of those who come to the dinners and the pantry for food are also getting involved as volunteers.

While the Lee Food Pantry gets all of its food through local donations of food or money, most Berkshire sites get the bulk of their supplies from The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield.

Sarah Gibbons, communications manager of The Food Bank, said that food insecurity affects 135,000 residents of Western Massachusetts in Berkshire, Franklin, Hamden and Hampshire counties.

"One out of five kids in the region lives in a food-insecure home," she said.

She said the The Food Bank is doing well as the New Year begins, despite having to make up a million pound food shortfall last year because of reduced government subsidies and higher government food costs.

"There was a dramatic increase of as much as 60 percent in the cost of peanut butter in the last quarter of 2012," she said, but added, "We have entered the new year more strongly than last year. We're in good shape.

"We hired a food sourcer to get bulk donations," she said. "We've purchased large quantities of foods with our own funds. We have a full donation department. We never slow down soliciting funds."

Gibbons said The Food Bank gets subsidized food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and money from the state to buy "approved nutritious items, the foods our agencies [food pantries, meal sites] need the most. We are restrict-

ed to peanut butter, milk, pasta, tuna, some frozen meat products -- not junk food.

"We also distribute fresh fruits and vegetables that we acquire in different ways, through donations, mostly from individuals. We have businesses that donate as well, a lot of local, regional and national."

A tough time

In Lanesborough, Sears said, "We're having a tough time getting stuff from [The Food Bank]. We're managing, but we end up every week just squeaking through. Every week we get new people. Last week we got three. More and more people getting out of the [military] service."

While BJ's is still giving the pantry food, "It's more baked goods than meat and potatoes," he said. "We built more shelves for storage, but we don't have anything to store. Winter is a tough time."

Weather -- drought in the West and Midwest and hurricanes in the East -- has played a role in the food shortage nationwide.

Roger Knysh, director of nutrition and food services at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, believes weather will cause food prices to rise considerably next year and in years to come.

"It will be important to monitor food cost closely," Knysh said. "Experts are predicting an 8 percent annual increase in food cost each year due to the severe damage of corn and soy bean crop. It is expected to take up to three years to recover from the 2012 drought."

At the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams, which serves free hot lunches to between 50 and 90 people every weekday, chef Jared Polens "improvises every day based on what I have."

Boiled dinner

One day last week he made "a boiled dinner with kale and cabbage and carrots and potatoes and ham, and a gingerbread bread pudding from leftover gingerbread in the freezer."

The week before, one day's lunch was chicken soup and pickled beets made from fresh beets.

Polens said the Berkshire Food Project gets much of its food from The Food Bank as well from individual donations, and local farms like Joy and John Primmer's Wildstone Farm in Pownal, Vt.

The Primmers brought in produce they had not sold at Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday farmers markets in Williamstown and Bennington, Polens said.

"So Berkshire Food Project got cases and cases of fresh lettuce and kale and carrots and lots of other vegetables."

Project director Valerie Schwartz said she would like to see more locally grown food used in schools and at home for both economic and social reasons.

"I would like to see our local schools using more produce from area farms and from school grown gardens, too," she said. "I would also like to see more families planting their own gardens."

"Growing up," she said, "we always had a garden. The whole family tended to it. I remember thinking I would rather be doing something else, but then the memory of sitting at the table with my family eating dinner and enjoying all the great veggies is a pleasurable past memory."

"I'm always thinking of ways to get families to take the time and enjoy food together," Schwartz said. "Our lives have become so busy. But if we just sat down to dinner as often as we could, if only for half an hour, it would bring families together and that's what's important."