PITTSFIELD — South Congregational Church is looking for a little help from the sun in its ongoing efforts to feed hundreds of needy households each week.
The South Street house of worship has embarked on a $103,500 capital campaign to fund the installation of 100 solar panels on the church roof this summer.
Once operational, the solar array is expected to offset about 85 percent of the church's electricity use, the majority of which powers the walk-in refrigerator and freezer in the church kitchen. The two units preserve the food for the Community Food Pantry, Saint Joseph's Kitchen weekly community dinners and Thanksgiving Angels' annual holiday food distribution program.
"Once we added the walk-in freezer and cooler six years ago and saw our electricity costs go up, it was time for solar," said the Rev. Joel Huntington.
The South Congregational Church pastor added that the solar array will cut about $8,000 from the annual $9,000 electric bill.
The fundraiser officially kicked off Friday, the summer solstice, with the monthly Bread and Roses Coffee House in the church parlor.
The capital campaign is off to a $5,000 start, with a goal to reach $20,000 by July 31. Reaching that deadline would qualify the church for a $20,000 grant from The Left Coast Fund, an educational, clean energy and environmental advocacy group serving the U.S. and countries around the world.
In addition, South Congregational Church is using a $30,000 gift bequeathed by a church member, the late Priscilla Bailey, toward a down payment for the solar panel installation, leaving a net of $65,000 left to raise. Church leaders also are exploring other grant opportunities and state solar tax incentives to help pay for the project.
"Going solar is a strategy to make the church more sustainable," Huntington said.
Feeding the masses
One of the church's primary missions is to address food insecurity in the Berkshires, according to church leaders. The Community Food Pantry, the largest food pantry distribution in Berkshire County, serves a total of 550 families Wednesday and Thursday mornings.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, dozens of volunteers with the Thanksgiving Angels dole out turkeys and all the fixings to about 1,400 households for a make-it-yourself Thanksgiving dinner. The distribution is a collaborative effort of nearly 20 organizations — mostly faith-based.
Food pantry coordinator Mary Wheat says that adding a walk-in freezer/refrigerator unit has increased the quality and quantity of food to those in need.
"We do more meat and more produce, which lasts longer," she said.
As for the weekly dinners held Wednesday, they feed an average of 80 to 100 people. Recently, the church began serving breakfast from 8 to 9 a.m. during the two days the food pantry is open. Wheat says offering the first meal of the day fills a void in the community.
"We have the food, we have the space and we have the people," she said.
Going solar is South Congregational Church's latest effort to minimize energy use in the building. Church officials say previous energy upgrades include installing LED lights, replacing old freezers and refrigerators with the efficient walk-ins, installing a new convection oven and stove, which don't use pilot lights, and putting newer, insulated windows in most church rooms.
The solar project is the church's second major fundraiser in five years. In 2014, a two-year capital campaign topped $232,000 in contributions from dozens of church members, several groups who use the church facilities and others outside the community.
The 170-year-old church and 85-year-old parish house needed significant upgrades that included roof and steeple repairs, an exterior paint job and a revamped kitchen that provides meals for weekly community dinners and other functions.
The capital improvements were, just as the latest fundraiser, necessary for the congregationalists to maintain their religious and secular mission.
Besides Sunday service and school and the food programs, nearly 20 church groups and community-based organizations regularly meet at South Congregational Church.
Dick Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com and 413-496-6233.