Groups redouble efforts to reduce food insecurity in Berkshires

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NORTH ADAMS >> People are talking a lot about food lately in the Berkshires.

It's about these facts: In an estimated population of 130,545 people, nearly 12 percent of them, or 15,330 Berkshire County residents, don't know where their next meal is coming from.

And the situation gets worse for children: While 1 in 5 children in Western Massachusetts face this issue — what's known as food insecurity — 1 in 3 Berkshire County children lack consistent access to nutritious food.

These statistics were presented by members of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts on Friday morning, among several presenters during the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's (nbCC) monthly forum. This month's meeting focused on the issue of food security and resources to help fight hunger and find solutions in the region. It was one of several events planned this week on the topic of food and access in the Berkshires.

On Friday evening, Berkshire Food Project held its annual Empty Bowl Dinner to raise awareness about hunger and lack of access to food in the community. The annual event benefits the Berkshire Food Project, which provides free meals to community members at noontime, five days a week, at the First Congregational Church in North Adams.

And from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington will present the 2016 ThinkFOOD conference, which will convene expert panelists and members of the public to more deeply examine together the foodways of the Berkshires. This includes what food is grown or produced here and how, and also where and how people are accessing it.

In an exercise to introduce different levels of food security at Friday's nbCC forum, Molly Sauvain, The Food Bank's education coordinator, had five volunteers order themselves from worst-case to best-case scenario: starvation, malnutrition, food insecurity, food security and community food security. Community food security is when everyone in a community has equal, abundant access to healthy, affordable, sustainably grown and produced foods.

"In Western Massachusetts, you don't find much starvation anymore but you do often find food insecurity," said Sauvain.

The reasons for this vary, and it's not all due to the issues of joblessness or homelessness, presenters said.

"Seventy percent of adults who are on SNAP benefits are working in Berkshire County, and 30 percent of those adults have at least two jobs," said Abby Getman, The Food Bank's planning and advocacy coordinator, referring to people who receive support through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She said today's wages often aren't enough to cover the basic costs of living.

Using Census Tract data, information collected from geographic neighborhoods mapped by the U.S. Census Bureau, Getman said the agency found that North Adams residents aren't being served, literally, enough in the region.

"We definitely see a gap between the needs and service," Getman said.

On Thursday, the agency decided to put out a request in the city for more local partnership agencies wishing to offer food and services through The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Any nonprofit or church is eligible for the partners program.

Still, the availability of food, resources and services is far greater today than it was 10 years ago, said Jennifer Munoz, who founded the Growing Healthy Garden Program and served as a nutrition coordinator through the REACH for Community Health program of the former North Adams Regional Hospital.

She reminded Friday's forum-goers how in 2006, the Northern Berkshire region began its participation in a four-year program called "Target: Hunger."

Established and implemented with a state Department of Public Health grant, the program conducted randomized phone surveys that found that 18 percent of the area's population faced food insecurity and 11.3 percent faced definite hunger.

"Those statistics were higher than the national and state averages," Munoz said.

The data was the catalyst for a series of community conversations, followed by planning and actions to quickly implement some sustainable solutions which still exist, including: an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) machine and double value program for SNAP benefits at the North Adams Farmers Market; the creation of school gardens and the Hoosac Harvest community advocacy organization, and the filming over two years a documentary by Sharon Wyrrick called "Place of Stones: Food in Motion," about food, growing and access in the region.

"Ten years ago, none of those things were happening," Munoz said, "but they were all things we've done for this community, together."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

Community resources ...

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts: foodbankwma.org/get-help or 800-247-9632

Berkshire Food Project: berkshirefoodproject.org or 413-664-7378

The Friendship Center in North Adams: 413-664-0123

Northern Berkshire Community Coalition: nbccoalition.org or 413-663-7588

Hoosac Harvest: hoosacharvest.org/contact

Berkshire Grown: berkshiregrown.org/programs/share-the-bounty

ThinkFood conference: simons-rock.edu/academics/program-overview/food-studies/index.php


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