PITTSFIELD — With hunger on the rise and farmers losing business from the coronavirus pandemic, legislators and community leaders see an opportunity for collaboration.

"Maybe a silver lining is the collaborations and partnerships that have grown out of it," said Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, which for nearly two decades has bought food from farmers to distribute to families experiencing food insecurity through its Share the Bounty program.

In recent months, community groups have worked together to expand efforts to feed hungry families. Now, they are turning their attention toward creating lasting conditions that would increase the county's food supply. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, met virtually with some of those groups last Friday, discussing ways to support local farming and improve access to healthy food.

"The idea was to get this group of people who have been working really well together on food issues to look more systemically at some of the barriers to increasing the amount of food that families have access to," said Candace Winkler, president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, which has raised and distributed more than $2 million through a COVID-19 emergency response fund.

Priorities include creating convenient cold storage options to allow farmers to keep produce that has yet to be sold, as well as researching which kinds of fruits and vegetables can grow in Berkshire soil, said Pignatelli, who first suggested the meeting. Farmers tend to harvest more than they can sell, and more storage could extend their selling season into the winter, he said.

"I think this is an opportunity to reinvent ourselves in the Berkshires," he said. "When we find food insecurity is a big issue, we need to give farmers a way to be profitable and provide a service to people."

Brenda Petell, Berkshire United Way's director of volunteer engagement, facilitated last Friday's call.

"I think the conversations will continue, but I think the right players that can make this happen have come to the table," she said.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which served 19 percent more food in March and April than during the same period last year, has also begun a search to buy farmland in Berkshire County, said Executive Director Andrew Morehouse. On its two farms in Hadley, the Food Bank partners with local farmers who work the land and give the Food Bank a share of each year's harvest rather than cash rent.

While farmland in the Berkshires can be less fit for growing produce than land in the Pioneer Valley, Morehouse said the Food Bank is experimenting with no-till farming as a way to improve soil fertility.

"[It's] very labor intensive, but it's a strategy to build the nutrient value of the soil, soil that might not be that fertile to begin with," said Morehouse, who added that the Food Bank is exploring ways to repurpose barns for cold storage.

Berkshire Grown has begun visiting farms across the county to hear from farmers about their needs, Moulton said.

"I'm so grateful that Smitty called us to reach out," Moulton said. "He really wants to make a difference. He really wants to learn about it, and so does Tricia."

Once areas for possible support have been identified, legislators will pursue funding through all available mechanisms, Farley-Bouvier said.

There is a history of using state programs to fight hunger while helping farmers, Farley-Bouvier said, citing the Healthy Incentive Program. That program allows families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to use that money at some farmers markets, while receiving an additional dollar of food for each SNAP dollar spent on local produce.

"Instead of forcing them to buy less healthy food, which has been happening for generations in this country, it's helping the family," Farley-Bouvier said. "But it's also helping the farmers, who know they can plant more crops because people have greater buying power."

Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Thursday announced a $36 million grant program to aid the food supply system.

Massachusetts' Agricultural Preservation Restriction program has also been used recently to bolster food access. Under that program, land owners are paid the difference between the "fair market value" and the "agricultural" value in their land, for a permanent assurance that the land would not be developed for nonagricultural purposes.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides cited "strengthening food security" amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the use of the program to protect the 165-acre Springstube Farm in West Stockbridge.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, called that announcement "great news."

"We're seeing a mix of increased interest in farming, and an increased interest in local food, and it's coming at the right time or finding possibilities for branding the region and what we stand for, and what makes us attractive," he said.

The preservation restriction program provided funding for both of the Food Bank's farms in Hadley, Morehouse said, and would likely be used in a purchase of a third farm.

Berkshire farmers often grow grass for livestock grazing, and many spend lots of time traveling to get meat slaughtered and processed, Moulton said. Longer-term efforts may include exploring a local slaughterhouse, according to Pignatelli and Farley-Bouvier.

"We're going to get creative and think outside the box," Pignatelli said. "This whole farm-to-table [idea], I think we can really amp it up with what COVID has exposed to all of us: Food insecurity is a serious issue. And I think we can propose some solutions."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports and 413-496-6221.