NORTH ADAMS — After more than 24 years with the Berkshire Food Project, its longtime leader, Valerie Schwarz, is set to retire in September.
"It's the end of an era for the agency," said Jim Mahon, president of the Berkshire Food Project's board of directors. "We started out on a shoestring with some Williams College students and some local clergy, and now it's much more than that."
Schwarz's tenure with the Berkshire Food Project — a nonprofit founded by Williams College students in 1986 in the wake of mill closings in North Adams — began nearly 25 years ago. Her older son, Matthew, was a member of the Boy Scout Troop and would volunteer serving meals out of the nonprofit's home at the First Congregational Church in North Adams.
"One day I came down with him, and I just loved it," Schwarz said.
The kitchen manager at the time let Schwarz know that she was leaving the position, so Schwarz applied to be her replacement and has been with the Berkshire Food Project ever since.
As kitchen manager and eventually as executive director, Schwarz was the only paid employee for her first 17 years at the Berkshire Food Project, which at the time served three meals per week. When it expanded to five meals per week about eight years ago, the nonprofit hired a kitchen manager.
"The strangest thing about the Berkshire Food Project is it was supposed to be small and temporary," said longtime volunteer and former board member Peter Buttenheim.
In the beginning, Buttenheim said, there were 40 to 50 people who would have lunch at the church.
Now, "there are days when they have 100, and she's now got grandchildren of people who were clients when she started," Buttenheim said.
The Berkshire Food Project now serves a free lunch every weekday, handing out about 35,000 every year. It now has a staff of three people: the executive director, the kitchen manager, and an assistant.
A central part of its mission has been to feed anyone, no questions asked, for free.
Schwarz's face is familiar to any of the nonprofit's regulars, who she said come from a variety of backgrounds.
"There's a stigma, I think, and it's still going strong," Schwarz said. "The people that eat here are not what the community might think they are."
Schwarz's love of cooking began at childhood, where she was the sous chef for her father, a former Army cook. He would improvise with whatever food was on hand because the family didn't always have the resources to cook traditionally.
"We never knew that, because he would make a big deal out of it," even making up special-sounding names for meals made from a grab-bag of ingredients, Schwarz said.
That resourcefulness carried into Schwarz's work at the Berkshire Food Project, which feeds thousands with an annual budget of less than $100,000.
As one example, Buttenheim pointed out Schwarz's collaboration with local farms to take in their excess fresh produce and allow members of the community to buy farm shares on behalf of the Berkshire Food Project.
If there is any goal Schwarz feels she hasn't accomplished, it would be to find the Berkshire Food Project a home of its own. But, with tight resources — and almost zero reliance on government funding — it was never a possibility.
The search to replace Schwarz, who notified the nonprofit's board of intention to retire nearly four months ago, is already underway.
Schwarz will continue to consult with the nonprofit after her retirement.
"I have some personal things that I want to do," Schwarz said. "I devoted so much of my energy and time to this job. It's not just a 40 hour per week position."
Mahon said the board hopes to announce Schwarz's successor by Sept. 10.
Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter