NORTH ADAMS — Kim McMann has stepped down as executive director of the Berkshire Food Project, citing burnout and a need for new leadership, after overseeing the nonprofit’s massive expansion in meal service during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “This past year has been crazy. I think whoever’s going to take over is going to need a lot of energy. And it seemed like a good time to transition.”
McMann resigned last week, after running the operation for 3 ½ years. The Berkshire Food Project serves free meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays out of First Congregational Church in North Adams.
Last year, as the state shut down in response to the virus threat, demand for the program’s services soared. The Berkshire Food Project served 73,000 meals in 2020, McMann said, compared with 45,000 meals in 2019. The numbers remained high during the first couple of months this year.
“People are going to get vaccinated, and the pandemic itself is going to maybe be under control, but people haven’t paid their rent for a year,” she said. “People are going to be struggling financially for a really long time.”
When the pandemic began, the operation moved out of the church kitchen — it already had been crowded — and into workstations spread out across the space that previously had served as a dining room. Staff began to serve an extra meal each week, handed out on alternate days to reduce risk of infection.
With the pivot to takeout meals, the organization paused its congregate dining program indefinitely. McMann cited that inability to provide communal meal spaces as one of the reasons she wanted to leave.
“We don’t have the capacity to fulfill our mission,” she said. “Half our mission is to reduce social isolation by having this dining room where everyone is met with dignity and respect. And we have no dining room.”
Since demand for the nonprofit’s services already had begun to climb even before the pandemic, with the number of meals served in 2019 up 30 percent over the previous year, McMann feared that the group might not be able to return to congregate dining in its current location.
But, finding a new home also would be a challenge for the organization, which operates largely off community donations.
“Downtown is where we need to be, and it’s going to be hard to find prime real estate,” she said. “Or we’re going to have to change how we do things. … It’s going to be a tough time. I think what would be best is for someone who doesn’t have a lot of history, who doesn’t have a vested interest in what things were like before COVID, to step in and do that.”
McMann also said that the year had taken a toll on her personally. During the early days of the pandemic, as the need grew, the organization discontinued its volunteer positions, and McMann was one of just four people preparing all the meals.
“We were flat out for a while,” she recalled.
Still, even as the operation brought back outside help and settled into a manageable routine, the total volunteer time declined from 1,000 hours a month to 250 or fewer, she said.
“I feel like I’m leaving them in a good place,” she said. “It’s just a good time to move on and let someone else come in, all energized and enthusiastic, with a bunch of great ideas. I’m ready to do something with less responsibility and less stress.”
James Mahon, president of the Berkshire Food Project board of directors, told The Eagle that the pandemic put “great pressure” on the entire staff, including McMann, who took just three vacation days in 2020.
“Kim McMann is an extraordinarily talented administrator, a take-charge person with a big heart,” he said. “She brought the Food Project to a new level, but by November of last year she was already planning to leave her position as its executive director, and looking for other jobs.”
Like McMann, Mahon also was concerned about lasting economic ramifications from the pandemic. But, he said that the number of meals served took a dip in March, which he attributed, in part, to the relief package signed into law by President Joe Biden and the $1,400 stimulus checks.
“A month ago, we worried that the economic damage of COVID would outlast the pandemic itself,” he said. “Now … maybe the economy will heal first, before the public health emergency has fully passed, so that it will look more ‘normal’ when that day comes.”
If more people want to join the congregate dining program post-COVID, he added, the organization potentially could split its lunch period into two sessions. He stressed, though, that it is too soon to predict when diners might be able to sit down together again for lunch.
Mahon also said that the nonprofit expects to hire a new director “within a few weeks” and that food distribution has continued without disruption.