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In new home, North Berkshire food pantry gives volunteers room for social distance

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This article has been amended from its original version to correct the proper name of the Al Nelson Friendship Center Food Pantry. 

NORTH ADAMS — The fight to feed the hungry hasn't stopped for the Al Nelson Friendship Center Food Pantry amid the pandemic. It's just moved a couple of blocks west.

The need for more physical distance between volunteers distributing food to families prompted the group to seek a bigger location at St. Elizabeth's of Hungary Parish, in the cafeteria/auditorium space that exits to Holden Street, according to Mark Rondeau, president of the board.

"We were awfully cramped," Rondeau said. "It's a nice space for normal times, but for these times it's too crowded in there, and there was little space on the sidewalk for dispense the food safely and still keep social distancing. We were just two or three feet away from each other, hardly getting any distance."

On the first distribution from the new location on Wednesday, food was passed to 138 households.

"It went well and we were able to keep our distance," Rondeau said. "It was a lot better. But this has been a very challenging time, so it is a work in progress."

It is a large space — literally the size of a gymnasium — where the group can store the food when it arrives from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. It also allows enough room so the volunteers can sort and pack the food while keeping proper distance, and enough room to keep the clients safe, he noted.

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The all-volunteer food pantry has been operating since 2011, distributing food and diapers free to families in the north county area. After one week in the new space, Rondeau said it will be making some more adjustments to the procedures to make it even safer for the volunteers and the clients.

Although it is a temporary arrangement, he expects to be there for a while.

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"The way this thing is going, we'll be here for at least two months," said Rondeau, an employee of The Eagle's sister paper, the Bennington Banner.

On Friday, nearly a dozen volunteers were on hand to unpack the food truck from Hatfield, the distribution point for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Volunteers unpacked and sorted through roughly 6,000 pounds of food — cans of ravioli, tuna, vegetables, apple sauce, tomato sauce and soups. There was also pasta, raisins, peanut butter, toilet paper and bread, among other staples. Frozen beef, poultry and other meats are also provided.

The volunteers used to fill a list of needs provided by the household, but for health reasons, they are now packing boxes for households of one, two, three, four and larger if needed.

Cars pull up, and residents give their name and town of residence, and the box will be set on the table. The driver will get out and retrieve the box and return home. Volunteers are asking households to just send one person if possible to avoid clusters of people.

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Clients are no longer asked to sign for the food; they can just come by Holden Street, just across from the Big Y, on Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. or between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. Volunteers are wearing face masks and some are wearing gloves while they're working.

Rondeau is expecting the demand to grow significantly during the coming weeks as the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak sets in. And he is hoping to find more volunteers to fill in as some of the older volunteers may need to shelter in place as time goes on.

"We had some new people on Wednesday that said they wouldn't be there if they hadn't lost their jobs," he said. "And we expect to see more people as more layoffs occur."

Christina Maxwell, director of programs at the Food Band of Western Massachusetts, agrees with that assessment.

"Demand has already picked up," she said. "Our food distribution has increased dramatically and our pantries are seeing people they haven't seen before. On the other hand, donations from grocery stores are way down, so we're looking at alternate sources. But our anticipation is that this is going to go on for some time."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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