Health Take-Away: Hunger in the Berkshires: An all too silent, but stark reality

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At least one of every 10 households in Berkshire County, some 14,300 people — a population larger than North Adams — likely went to bed hungry last night.

Those neighbors, nearly a third of them children, are food insecure, meaning they don't have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Even if they have enough to put on the table some days, more often than not they don't. It's a disturbing reality triggered by a combination of economics and geography.

Berkshire County is one of the poorest regions in the state and also one of the most rural, remote and largest in square miles. Seventy percent of county residents fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The vast majority are among the "working poor," families that often hold multiple jobs, but still are unable to consistently, adequately feed themselves. In fact, 30 percent of food insecure individuals earn too much to qualify for nutrition assistance programs. Even if they do qualify, many don't have transportation or access to food pantry donations, community meal sites or other programs that help feed those in need.

Of course, the food insecurity issue here is part of a much larger national and global crisis. Eight hundred million people worldwide, including some 15 million in the U.S., suffer from food insecurity. About nine million people in the world die of starvation or associated disease every year. Every 10 seconds, a child somewhere dies from hunger.

With an estimated 11.2 percent of Berkshire County's roughly 127,000 residents being food insecure, a deep cross-section of multiple groups in the area, including local farmers, supermarkets, restaurants, churches, philanthropies, social service agencies, hospitals, health-care organizations, municipal governments, and public and higher-education schools, are working individually and collectively to fill the hunger gap.

Two of the county's leading nonprofits dedicated to feeding the hungry, Berkshires Bounty and Backyard Bounty of the Berkshires, recently merged as Berkshire-Bounty in a strategic move to maximize efforts to collect and distribute fresh produce and other food to those in need. Be Well Berkshires, an initiative of the state Mass in Motion program and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, recently completed a comprehensive community food assessment of Berkshire County. The report shined a brighter light on the scope of the food security challenge here and identified opportunities for moving forward.

Among the priorities echoed by many involved in strengthening food security in Berkshire County:

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- Address transportation gaps. The county's rural nature and limited public transportation options create a population that is vulnerable to food insecurity, particularly for low-income and car-less households.

- Tighten coordination. Though several organizations are actively working together on this issue, greater integration around logistics would help provide more food to more people in more places.

- Better educate the population about resources. Older adults and members of our immigrant communities in particular face barriers to utilizing food assistance resources. They often don't know what resources are available and that they may very well qualify.

- Sustain local agriculture as a major source of food security. Through open-air markets and other means, Berkshire farmers have long pioneered the effort to feed people in need. That farm-to-people connection lies at the heart of the solution.

- Expand access to local foods through Berkshire public schools. This is an often overlooked source of healthy food access for children who may not be getting that nutrition at home

- Borrow best practices from other places. As this region focuses on a truly integrated and sustainable plan, it can benefit from many creative solutions already under way in other parts of the nation and world.

All of this is food for thought — and food for people — as we seek to end needless hunger in the Berkshires.

Pete Gazzillo is director of nutritional health at Berkshire Health Systems.


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