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Tom Bernard and Duffy Judge: Together, we can help our Berkshire neighbors who go hungry

A recent survey from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission tells us one in 10 Berkshire County residents report rarely or never being able to afford healthy food. In a land of plenty, food insecurity is the heartbreaking reality for many of our friends and neighbors, colleagues and family members.

Hunger persists despite the interventions — including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; and the National School Lunch Program — that came out of the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. The nonprofit Feeding America shares that more than 34 million people, including 9 million children, in the United States are food insecure, and that hunger costs the United States more than $160 billion annually in poor health outcomes, chronic disease and lost productivity. Moreover, for school-age children, hunger is among the many significant barriers to learning readiness and educational achievement. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “the toll of hunger and these diseases is not distributed equally, disproportionately impacting underserved communities, including communities of color, people living in rural areas, people who are differently-abled, older adults, LGBTQI+ people, military families, and military veterans.” Locally, 26 percent of the food insecure population identify as Black and only 7 percent identify as white.

On Wednesday, the Biden-Harris Administration and stakeholders from Congress, federal and state agencies, nonprofits including United Way Worldwide, and people with lived experience from every walk of life will take part in a new White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. Organizers have set an ambitious goal to introduce a national strategy to “end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030.”

This national focus is encouraging and necessary. As Massachusetts-based nonprofit Project Bread has stated, “Without a doubt, policy change is simply the most impactful solution to address hunger.” However, we know that policy change takes time, and while hunger persists, there is much we can, should and must do to support efforts to realize the promise of systems-level change. Put simply, we can’t let up on the local fight against food insecurity. This is a longstanding and shared commitment of Berkshire United Way, Northern Berkshire United Way and our community partners.

For example, Northern Berkshire United Way supports the Berkshire Food Project, based in North Adams. This year alone, Berkshire Food Project has served more than 80,000 meals, provided emergency food, online SNAP assistance, and offered community, connection and companionship to people who may be food insecure.

In this work they are part of a network of partners that include the Al Nelson Friendship Center Food Pantry, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Berkshire Bounty, the Berkshire Dream Center‘s mobile food pantry and Bright Morningstar Kitchen, Price Memorial AME Zion Church, the South Community Food Pantry, and countless others. Thanks to recent state legislation, schools serve nutritious lunches — and in some districts breakfast as well — to all students free of charge. Through these efforts, individuals and organizations provide tens of thousands of meals; literal tons of fresh, healthy food and produce every year; and affirmation and dignity in meeting this most basic of human needs. This especially important for our community, where up to 33 percent of Berkshire County’s food insecure population lives above the poverty line and, therefore, are ineligible for food programs such as SNAP.

Central to these efforts is the work of tireless, dedicated volunteers who gather, organize and deliver food to pantries and from there to distribution sites and doorsteps across Berkshire County. This spring, Berkshire United Way led #HereForGood Volunteer Month, which included several activities focused on food security. We collaborated with The Outreach Program and local volunteers — including volunteers from Greylock Federal Credit Union (a sponsor), Rotary Club of Pittsfield, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, UNICO and Unistress — to assemble 20,000 meal packets. During our Day of Caring event, hosted by L.P. Adams and organized in collaboration with Berkshire Bounty, volunteers filled 1,000 bags with approximately 15,000 pounds of nonperishable food items, and Berkshire United Way and Northern Berkshire United Way collaborated to distribute this food to local food pantries, senior housing and other sites.

These are just a few examples of our longstanding and ongoing effort to overcome food security in the Berkshires. They reflect the commitment and spirit that animates our work. We’re proud to know that in times of need people look to their local United Way and our network of partner agencies and nonprofits, including hundreds of dedicated volunteers, for help, support and solutions. No one has all the answers or the ability to solve every problem alone. That’s why Berkshire United Way, Northern Berkshire United Way and our United Way colleagues across Massachusetts stand shoulder to shoulder in serving our communities and will continue to act locally while national solutions evolve.

For more information on the White House conference, visit whitehouse.gov/hungerhealthconference.

Tom Bernard serves as president and CEO of Berkshire United Way. Duffy Judge is the executive director of Northern Berkshire United Way.

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