When the coronavirus pandemic hit the Berkshires, many emergency food providers moved their distributions outdoors.
But with temperatures dropping and hunger still high, winter poses a challenge. Pantry leaders are determined to carry on, while doing so safely and providing enough.
Berkshire Food Project in North Adams typically serves community meals in its dining room. But, it moved to serving people takeout meals from under a tent in April and May. When it got colder, the group began serving indoors, while keeping doors open for ventilation.
The project has been serving twice as many meals as usual. People form long lines outside during distribution hours. Executive Director Kim McMann isn’t sure how long the weather will allow that.
“Our biggest concern is winter,” said McMann. “We’re probably going to be able to have maybe another month, six weeks, and then it’s going to be too cold.”
Community Food Pantry, run by South Congregational Church in Pittsfield, moved its food distribution outside, and it will remain outdoors until Thanksgiving, said Mary Wheat, who helps run the pantry.
Beyond that, less is certain.
“We’re going to keep the pantry going — we just haven’t figured out all the ins and outs,” Wheat said. “I think if we purchase anything it would probably be a heater for people outside giving out food.”
Rising needFeeding America, a group of food banks nationwide, estimates Western Massachusetts has experienced a 47 percent increase in hunger due to the pandemic, with much of the increase affecting children.
While the Al Nelson Friendship Center Food Pantry in North Adams didn’t immediately see greater need when the pandemic hit, its numbers have increased since emergency financial relief from the federal government ended. The pantry served 174 households the last Wednesday of August — the most it served all year.
“I think that generally in the pandemic we didn’t go up much because there was a lot of food assistance and there was a lot of federal financial assistance,” said Mark Rondeau, board president of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, which runs the pantry. “Now they haven’t gotten their act together, and we’re expecting somewhat higher numbers in the winter.”
The Friendship Center has been meeting people at the door to give them food on Wednesdays, in addition to delivering food on Thursdays to those who order by phone the day before.
Community Food Pantry has always done deliveries, but more of them since the pandemic hit. Roughly 150 of the 500 families it serves each week get their food delivered, and those numbers are “gradually creeping up,” Wheat said.
“We have a lot of a lot to elderly people, low-income people, undocumented people and people who don’t have transportation,” Wheat said.
“We’re willing to serve anybody. We’re happy to bring them food. The trouble is once in a while people call up and they don’t leave their address or leave their number or say their name clearly,” she said.
McMann said Berkshire Food Project received a wave of donations at the start of the pandemic, but that support has waned.
“I’m worried about January. Will people still be talking about food security?” McMann asked. “We’re hoping people will recognize that food security is an issue every day of every year.”
The Lee Food Pantry has seen roughly the same number of people, but fewer elderly people, said coordinator Susan Gore. Gore credits other programs that deliver food in the region with helping the pantry avoid an increase in its numbers.
The pantry has been serving food outside, but it has a large enough space to move operations indoors in the winter, Gore said.
“I think what we’re going to have people do is have everything ready on a table for them to grab, and they can come in one door and go out the back door.”
The Sheffield Food Assistance Program, meanwhile, is planning to stay outdoors, bringing pre-packed boxes of food to people’s cars rather than having them come into the building, said coordinator Marcia Brolli.
“We’ll just do it through the cold weather,” Brolli said. “They’re 30, 40 pounds, some of these boxes that are carried out. The volunteers have been phenomenal.”
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has offered grants to Berkshire groups to address costs such as food distribution, cold storage and purchasing food or personal protective equipment, said Michelle Geoffrey, the Food Bank’s agency relations manager.
Berkshire Community Action Council made $50,000 of the $580,000 it received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security (CARES) Act available for those grants.
“What we tried to do was identify the gaps in funding,” said BCAC Executive Director Deborah Leonczyk. “Where the need is, the money is there.”