Mobile food bank answer to area food insecurity

Great Barrington — The first Tuesday of the month arrived proffering blue skies and balmy temperatures for the long line of South County residents queuing up in the parking lot at Community Health Programs. The line, which began forming around 10:45 a.m., was bustling with energy and conversation as shoppers awaited the Mobile Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ monthly food distribution. In a region where 12 percent of the population, or close to 16,000 people. find themselves without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, “the mobile” is working to break down barriers and eradicate the stigma often associated with food insecurity: there are no eligibility requirements, and anyone in need of fresh food can attend.

Betsy Strickler.

Photo courtesy Community Health Programs “We truly have no idea who is in line here,” said Betsy Strickler, chief communications officer for CHP, as we chatted in the parking lot during Tuesday’s hour-long food distribution. “It feels super busy,” she said, noting “lots of new faces” in the crowd. The program began as a pilot in 2014 when there were only six “mobiles” throughout western Massachusetts. “We were one of them,” said Mary Feuer, assistant director of South County WIC.

In the past six years, the program has grown. “The first time [the mobile came to Great Barrington], we had about 100 families; now, we are up over 200 families that come through each month,” Feuer reported. The mobile food bank delivers a truck full of fresh and nonperishable groceries from the warehouse directly to community sites throughout the region; the program reaches underserved populations throughout western Massachusetts that don’t have access to healthy foods, including families, seniors and children.

Mobile food bank answer to area food insecurity

Some of the offerings available from the Mobile Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Volunteers are integral to the process, as many hands make light work. “It’s always different, but a nice combination of fresh, frozen and packaged food” is available each month, said Sonya Seward of Sheffield. As a regular volunteer, Seward has seen offerings run the gamut from organic asparagus to yogurt in addition to “a lot of the basics.” As I made my way through the line, Bill Nappo of Housatonic helped me fill my cardboard box; he has been a volunteer “since the beginning” and Tuesday morning, he was handing out frozen turkey breasts. There were onions (2 pounds); potatoes (5 pounds); carrots (5 pounds); a fresh head of cabbage; beets (two handfuls); apples (12); and a bunch of bananas.

Thanks to a donation from Big Y, there was stuffing and cranberry sauce as well as a special treat: pumpkin spice creamer. “It’s all fresh, nutritious food — none is expired or old,” Feuer explained.

Mobile food bank answer to area food insecurity

Julia Jarvis, left, and Mary Feuer of Berkshire South WIC, part of Community Health Programs Family Services. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle Equity is the order of the day: Each shopper receives the same amount of food, whether single or feeding a family of five. “We want to take the stigma out of [food insecurity]” said Feuer, “so we keep it as honest and simple as possible.” The only information gleaned at the distribution site is how many individuals are in the family, age ranges of family members and whether or not the shopper has been before. “Food security is part of the health of the entire family,” Feuer explained, pointing to the excellent fit among a trio of organizations.

CHP Family Services coordinates the South Berkshire region’s WIC nutrition program, which provides pregnant and breastfeeding women and their young children with healthy diet education, access to nutritious food and nutrition counseling. If there are any drawbacks to “the mobile,” they are few. “I wish [food distribution] were later in the day,” one shopper remarked. “Or that the days alternated,” said another who, along with a friend, commutes from Pittsfield to Great Barrington for work. “It happens, very infrequently, that we can cut out of work and come,” the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Mobile food bank answer to area food insecurity

A pallet of onions from the Mobile Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Maddie Elling of Housatonic has contemplated this challenge; with a young child at home, she receives WIC benefits and gets text message alerts as to the community programs offered by CHP Family Services. “It makes me think of all those who can’t make it here,” she said on Tuesday, citing inflexible work schedules and lack of transportation as the biggest obstacles. As we chatted, I carried my box of groceries to her car. “I have employees who would benefit,” she said, understanding the wealth of opportunities that exist for those who know about them. Elling told me about a second monthly food distribution at CHP/WIC in Great Barrington — on the third Wednesday of each month — organized by Berkshire Bounty as part of the nonprofit’s efforts to reach more people and supplement the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“The mobile” rolls into town rain or shine, and it has yet to run out of food. “They kind of know our numbers, and they always pack the truck for 10 percent over,” Feuer said. CHP also coordinates the Mobile Food Bank in Dalton on the fourth Wednesday of the month, also from 11 a.m. to noon. For many, attendance is a bit of a social experience, equally integral in building healthy communities. “We welcome people from all walks of life,” said Strickler, “and we have learned it’s not our business to ask why they are here.”

—————- Community Health Programs, based in Great Barrington, Mass., is a federally qualified health center practice network serving more than 30,000 Berkshire County region residents with primary health care for adults and children, women’s health care, dental care, physical therapy, vision care and nutrition services. CHP Family Services reaches parents and children in Southern Berkshire County with parent-child networking, parenting education, WIC services and nutrition classes.

CHP accepts all patients, regardless of ability to pay, and accepts all forms of public and private health insurance.

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