County Fare: Community chef donating T-shirt sale proceeds to help fight hunger

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Janet Reich Elsbach, author of "Extra Helping" and two-year featured community chef at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center's community suppers in Great Barrington, has found a way to make dinner for hundreds without leaving her house or even opening the refrigerator.

She is donating proceeds from her newly designed T-shirt to Berkshire South and Feeding America.

This T-shirt promotion, offered through Monterey T-shirts, allows organizations to keep half of the money raised through sales. T-shirts are $20 each, and Elsbach's shirts feature a homey cooking scene rendered in papercut and the language "Food is Love is Community."

Jenise Lucey, executive director of Berkshire South, said she appreciates Elsbach's generosity, especially during this time that the center is closed to its members and the public.

"As many as 500 individuals benefit weekly from our free supplemental meal program, Nourishing Neighbors," Lucey said. "It has proved to be such an important community resource that we hope to keep it funded for as long as possible. Acts of kindness like Janet's have proven to be the sustaining force fulfilling this great need for those most deeply affected by COVID-19 in the Southern Berkshires."

Elsbach misses a full table.

"There's a beautiful cross-section of our area residents at the Monday dinners," Elsbach says, "and it's an honor to be part of the crew filling plates and making this community occasion take shape."

Given the restrictions of COVID-19, the group meal has been suspended, but Berkshire South has pivoted quickly to stay present and keep food available to community members. Their Nourishing Neighbors program makes 500 cold meals from local restaurants available for free through a noncontact distribution program.

Meals are available for all community members in the Southern Berkshires needing extra support at this time, especially the senior population, those who have lost their jobs and those otherwise financially struggling. For those who are homebound, delivery can be arranged.

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Elsbach, frustrated by the idle spoons and peelers and colanders in the kitchen, saw another way to help.

"I started volunteering with the supper program when I was researching my book, 'Extra Helping,' which is all about building connections with family, friends, neighbors and strangers through the simple act of feeding each other."

The book chronicles how Elsbach, a lifelong home cook who knew the value of a food chain just for growing families — she has three children — became devoted to the dinner basket when a series of illnesses and losses came into her immediate family.

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Elsbach and the book's publisher partnered with Feeding America to designate a portion of each book's sale price to their efforts to combat hunger nationwide. To date, book sales have underwritten 15,000 meals.

Elsbach's blog, "A Raisin + A Porpoise," has featured several virtual community suppers for Berkshire South via social media channels, in which she offers pantry-extending tips to make quarantine cooking less of a chore.

"I'm hearing from so many people who are turning to the book now to help them support neighbors touched by illness and hardship," Elsbach said. "And I wanted to see if there was a way to take aim at a bunch of the 'front burner' ideas in my head all at once."

Dean Hutson of Monterey T-shirts provided just such an opportunity. His "Shop Our Community, Buy Local" initiative gives local businesses a way to earn income and keep each other afloat. "Extra Helping" illustrator Anna Brones generously allowed the cover art from the book to be part of a shirt now for sale on the Monterey T-shirts site.

To support this community effort, T-shirts can be purchased at montereytshirts.com.

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Copies of "Extra Helping" can be purchased from The Bookloft or wherever books are sold.

Pen Pal Extravaganza

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and its Community Outreach Volunteers are hosting a Pen Pal Extravaganza in an effort to reach out to community members who are isolated and connect them with others.

Community Outreach Volunteers participate in free training over a five-month period. At the end of their training, the participants leverage community assets to address and identified Northern Berkshire needs. This year's capstone project is about an intergenerational, inclusive, intergroup month of heart-to-heart connection.

The Pen Pal Extravaganza will connect letter writers, phone callers or emailers with folks who are isolated or bored or who wouldn't mind a pick-me-up in the form of well-wishes from a kind stranger.

Through June 22, the 2020 volunteers team will review applications, welcome folks to the project and pair willing communicators with willing receivers.

To sign up, visit facebook.com/berkshirepenpals.

County Fare, a weekly column featuring "tales from throughout the Berkshires," is compiled by Eagle staffers.


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