Saturday, September 19, 2015

On the Road to Boston with BIO

                                                                  The State House in Boston

                          Learning, empowerment and prayer

Contents: Why we went; A rich experience; First food victory; Food and Jobs: Mass. Food Trust; The opening of the photo exhibit; Poverty in Massachusetts; Circle of prayer

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, two vans filled with Berkshire County people travelled to Boston under the aegis of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing (BIO).
The first purpose was to attend an opening for “Take Another Look: A Photographic Essay on Food Insecurity” by Nicholas DeCandia, a Berkshire County photographer. It is now on display in Doric Hall at the State House in Boston, where we saw it. All tours of the State House begin and end in this hall, we were told.

This exhibit of 30-photos shows the volunteers and guests of the meals program and food pantry of South Congregational Church in Pittsfield. “For people in Boston to see that we have hunger in the Berkshires will help them see it’s everywhere,” Rev. Joel Huntington, pastor of South Congregational and a BIO leader, told the Berkshire Eagle.

As BIO lead organizer Wendy Krom said as she helped drive us down to Boston, paraphrased: We need to show folks down there that the Berkshires is more than just Tanglewood and second-home owners.
The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative (NBIAI) joined BIO in July, becoming its first organizational, non-congregational member. So on one of those vans were five people who in one way or another have been connected with NBIAI’s Friendship Center Food Pantry as volunteers.

The others were from Adams and points south in Berkshire County. Many were clergy and lay leaders of BIO. Others, like me, were delegates to BIO and participants in its food insecurity task force.

We walk down Beacon Street to the Congregational Building, where the MPHA offices are located.

                                              A rich experience

In addition to attending the opening at the State House, the trip had other purposes. One unspoken purpose was to familiarize us with the Massachusetts Legislature and more in our state capital.
I am a native of Massachusetts and was editor of a weekly newspaper in Northern Berkshire for nine years and had never visited the State House until this week. It was not part of my education up to 10th grade in North Adams public schools (my family moved out of state when I was 15).

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, gave us a heartfelt tour of the House Chamber. He mentioned how happy he was to see people from Berkshire County, as lots of us don’t make our way down there. He noted how Berkshire schools don’t take trips to Boston, unlike public schools a lot closer to Boston, because it’s a whole-day thing for us and expensive.
We need to become a lot more familiar with the State House. There will no doubt be more of these trips, and I hope more of the NBIAI/Friendship Center team will experience it. Even an old boy like me found the visit enlightening, inspiring and empowering.


                                            First food victory

Another reason we went to Boston was to offer thanks for the $2 million increase in funding in the budget for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Program (MEFAP). The two legislators we interacted with were Pignatelli and State Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, who spoke at the opening and gave us a tour of the Senate chambers. (We had group photos taken in both legislative chambers).

                                  Food and Jobs: Mass. Food Trust

Andrea Freeman, field director, and Rebekah Gewirtz, executive director, of the Massachusetts Public Health Association
Another reason we went to Boston was to learn about and advocate for the Massachusetts Food Trust program, which the state legislature created and Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law in 2014 but which has not been funded.

Modeled on similar initiatives in other states such as New York, Pennsylvania and California, this program would provide loans, grants and technical assistance to support new and expanded healthy food retailers and food enterprises in areas that need them most.

I did not know this until recently, but Massachusetts is 47 of the 50 states in access to grocery stores. Although North Adams has three grocery stores, we are still part of an area of the state considered a “food desert.”
The Food Trust is about more than just more and expanded grocery stores, however. It might also provide funding farmer’s markets, mobile markets, community kitchens, food truck commissaries, greenhouses, food distribution hubs and more, projects that would create jobs in low or moderate income communities.

We have the opportunity here in Berkshire/Northern Berkshire, as I and others see it, for a mobile food pantry, a centralized food hub capable of storing food, and possibly even a new farm providing employment.

A chief advocate for the Massachusetts Food Trust is the Massachusetts Public HealthAssociation (MPHA), which served as home base for us during our visit. It is located on the seventh floor of a building on Beacon Street within sight of the State House. They were great hosts.

Their goal is to get $10 million in seed funding for the Mass. Food Trust. For the 2016 fiscal year, MPHA seeks $2.5 million in the state budget. They are also seeking the release of the $2 million in bond funds dedicated to the Food Trust.

I am hoping that BIO will be conducting more trips to Boston for some hands-on lobbying. It is an empowering experience.

                                       The opening of the photo exhibit

 The Rev. Joel Huntington at the State House
The Rev. Joel Huntington was the first to speak “Take Another Look: A Photographic Essay on Food Insecurity.” All the photos were taken at South Congregational Church, south of Park Square on Route 7 in Pittsfield. They have a huge food operation, serving about 450 families a week at the food pantry and another 60 to 80 people with meals once a week.

By comparison, the Friendship Center Food Pantry serves between 150 and 200 families per week. The Berkshire Food Project probably serves even more meals per week with its program Mondays through Friday.
Huntington noted that while this is the largest food pantry in Pittsfield, it’s not the only one. “There’s a lot of poverty” in that city of about 42,000, he said. “So what do we make if it?”

“Jesus once said, ‘The poor you will have with you always, and people often just stop there. And say, ‘Okay, therefore, there’s nothing we can do, nothing we need to do, it’s a form resignation or even justification…

“But Jesus knew by heart the rest of the quote. He was quoting the book of Deuteronomy; the Hebrew Bible was his Bible. The rest of the quote is: ‘The poor you will have with you always, therefore open your hands to the poor, open your hearts to the poor, open your eyes to the poor, not just for their sake but for your own sake so that we can all be whole.” That’s what Jesus knew and that’s what he wanted and that’s what we’re supposed to embody in our faith.”

To the question of how do we do that, he told the story of Gretchen DeBartolo who worked next door to the church for years and recently started volunteering for its meals program. She found her involvement very rewarding and spoke to DeCandia about doing a photo project.

Sam Smith of Williamstown at "Take Another Look." Below, Lauryn Levesque and Gretchen DeBartolo at the exhibit.

Paula Morey, of Pittsfield, who is a member of the BIO food insecurity team and is a first cousin of mine, spoke about the work of BIO, including the success in raising MEFAP funding.

“Our next priority is to support funding for the Massachusetts Food Trust,” she said. “We believe that if it’s funded appropriately, it will create opportunities for good jobs, increase access to healthy food and revitalization of our communities.”

Downing said the exhibit was a way to educate other legislators of poverty and need in Berkshire County. “Thank you for the work that you all are doing,” he said to the Berkshire visitors, “the advocacy work that you are doing, the service work that you all are doing. Thank you for the examples you provide in our communities.

“It’s easy to think that these problems are too big…but it’s important to remember that the work of an individual has ripple effects far greater than anything that we see,” he said. “I know that I am hopeful because of all the work that you all do.”

Sen. Ben Downing shows us the Senate Chamber, which we learned is under the golden dome of the State House.  Below, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli shows us the Massachusetts House Chamber, while we sit at the wooden desks of representatives. 

                                            Poverty in Massachusetts

State Auditor Suzanne Bump, who is from Great Barrington, also addressed us and made a point I had not before considered. First, she spoke of the moral imperative to serve the poor among us, and I found charming her story that she knew her future husband was right for her because he was actively involved in serving the poor when she met him.

“On a per capita basis we have a larger income than most other states in the nation,” Bump said. But digging down in the figures “you see that most of that wealth is concentrated in just a couple of counties here in Massachusetts, and even within those counties, Suffolk County, Middlesex County, there is food insecurity.
"But those counties skew the figures for Massachusetts, because once we move off those couple of counties, then you see that [the average of family] income in the rest of Massachusetts is far below the statewide average, you’re also below the national average in terms of family income.”

On this point, the photo exhibit included some charts and graphs. One of them was titled “Families in Berkshire County need up to $86,000 to attain a secure yet modest living.”
Even for one parent and one child, the amount is $53,527. These figures for 2013 from the Economy Policy Institute ring true to me.  

Circle of prayer

We ended our visit with lunches we brought sitting on Boston Common within view of the State House. We each shared what we got from our visit. My main conclusion is that while democracy may be endangered at the national level, it is still alive in Massachusetts and the visit was very empowering. Another member of our group illustrated with food on hand how little one can buy for a family on $25 of SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

We ended our lunch holding hands in a circle, as Rev. Huntington led us in a prayer, no doubt showing the other people in the Common that faith, too, is still alive in Massachusetts.

                                        Our place on the Common before leaving Boston.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Photos from Friendship Center Food Pantry Annual Picnic

On Thursday, August 27, the Friendship Center Food Pantry held its second annual potluck picnic for volunteers at Joan and Stan Owczarski's house. Thanks to Fran Berasi and Morgan Kierstead for these excellent photos of the event.

Kevin Tyree, super volunteer and always ready for a good time. A true friend and joy to be around.

Maryam Kamagar of Goodwill and her son and the back of Al Nelson, among others.

Al Nelson does not want his photo taken.
Some of our past and present Florida Mountain contingent. Sheila Bounds, Marilyn Brown and Sharon May, who now lives in North Adams.
Another couple of group shots.
Some more of our folks from Florida Mountain.
Catherine and Bob Dubriel get something to eat.
Our host Stan did the cooking.
A few more nice group shots.
Thanks again to Stan and Joan, as well as Fran and Morgan for the photos. There will be lots more news and blog posts coming in the next few weeks, As we have a busy fall ahead on many fronts. Once we get through these dog days!
God Bless,

Monday, July 20, 2015

Keeping Very Busy in the Summertime

Because of Vacation Bible School at the First Baptist Church of North Adams, sign-ins for the food pantry this Wednesday, July 22, will be held at 43 Eagle St. Hours will remain the same.

s at 43 Eagle Street one week only

First, due to our hosts at the First Baptist Church of North Adams holding vacation Bible school this week, food pantry sign-ins will take place this Wednesday, July 22, at our old site of 43 Eagle St.
The pantry itself, of course, will be next door in our new space at 45 Eagle Street. We thank our landlords for allowing us to use 43 Eagle St. on this occasion. Pantry hours remain the same.

Meeting with BIO and CLIA



Here's a picture from the meeting at Williams College last Friday, closest to the camera are NBIAI board members Corinne Case, Dave Wesley and Al Nelson.


On Friday, July 17. four members of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative met with representatives of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing and the Williams College Center for Learning in Action at the new Sawyer Library at the college.

Kathy Hrach, a rising Williams senior who is an intern with several groups this summer, including the NBIAI and the Friendship Center Food Pantry, set up this informal discussion, which lasted over an hour.

One result of this meeting will be more contact, and hopefully collaboration, between CLIA and NBIAI. As for BIO, the NBIAI voted at its last board meeting, on July 13, to become its first non-congregational member of this county-wide activist organization. More on this in the future.

From the Williams College website, a description of the Center for Learning in Action: "The Center for Learning in Action strives to cultivate and sustain experiential learning opportunities, curricular and non-curricular, in service of the teaching goals of our faculty, the civic aspirations of our students and the needs of the wider community."

And from its Facebook page, here is a description of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing: "BIO is a community organization of faith- and values-based institutions across Berkshire County, MA, acting together powerfully for justice."

Above, Al Nelson, Kathy Hrach, Rev. Mark Longhurst of First Congregational Williamstown and BIO, one of the CLIA students from Williams. Below, another photo from the meeting.


  New Treasurer: Dave Wesley

We are pleased to announce that David Welsey of Cheshire has become our new treasurer and board member. He has extensive professional and volunteer experience in accounting and financial oversight. He came to my/our attention as a frequent volunteer for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts signing people up for SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits at the Eagle Street Room. He cares deeply about helping our friends in need.


Friendship Center Food Pantry Fundraising Drive


Part of our very busy summer is conducting our annual letter fund-raising campaign to support the Friendship Center Food Pantry. In 2014, the pantry served 1,191 individual households with a total of 3,381 individuals served, and we distributed 280,000 pounds of food. These numbers are about 9 percent higher than 2013.

Though the average weekly number of pantry visitors has leveled off so far in 2015 after growing for four years, need remains great. A survey earlier this year we took in collaboration with Mass in Motion of 233 food pantry members, some 28 percent of those responding said they did not have enough access to food in any given month; additionally, another 9 percent said they had access to much less food than adequate, even when supplemented by the food we give them.

Some reading this will be receiving donation requests by the U.S. Mail. Those who are not may give by making a check out to the Friendship Center Food Pantry and mailing it to: The Friendship Center Food Pantry, 45 Eagle St., North Adams, MA 01247. All monetary donations are tax deductible. Phone: 413-664-0123. We are happy to give tours to those are interested in what we do.

Friendship Center needs drivers, helpers




Loading a rental truck with food for the Friendship Center at the depot in Pittsfield, taken one very cold winter day a couple of years ago. 


We need more drivers to commit to help on Tuesday so we can set up a regular schedule. If we can’t pick up the food in Pittsfield, we can’t give it out. Here’s our announcement about that:

The Friendship Center Food Pantry, 45 Eagle St. in North Adams, needs a driver one or more Tuesdays a month to bring our food back from a depot in Pittsfield in a rented truck. Person should have a good driving record and be willing to commit to a regular schedule and be reasonably physically fit. Helpers will help driver pick up the food and should be physically fit and able to lift boxes and help move pallets around. Being able to operate a forklift is a plus for either volunteer position. If interested, please call Dan Bird at 413-458-9330 or email

Thanks for reading this far and God Bless!


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Dr. Tom Hyde awarded Northern Berkshire Hero Award

Dr. Tom Hyde at today's Coalition Annual Meeting.

At Wednesday's 29th Annual Meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Dr. Tom Hyde -- a weekly volunteer at the Friendship Center Food Pantry -- received the Northern Berkshire Hero Award.

A greatly respected Northern Berkshire pediatrician, Tom was recognized for his volunteer involvement with the Friendship Center Food Pantry, the Northern Berkshire RX/Heroin Work Group and with the Hoosic River Watershed Association (HooRWA) for which he serves as president.

Tom is a great guy and we are lucky to have him as a volunteer.

The meeting was poignant because it was the last annual meeting for Executive Director Al Bashevkin, the only director the organization has ever had, who is retiring. In his remarks, Al highlighted three lessons . One of them was for organizations to help out fledgling organizations. This happened back when the Coalition was born when MCLA (then North Adams State College) provided space and support.

So, in the same way, Al noted did the Coalition help out us (NBIAI/Friendship Center Food Pantry) when we started out, including as acting as our fiscal agent for several years. Al directed some of his staff our way when we were initially swamped with guests at our food pantry. 

Al also gave us, specifically me, some great advice along the way. 

He has huge shoes to fill and will be missed.

Tom Hyde and Al Bashevkin at today's event.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Information regarding June 19 Interfaith Programs and Events meeting

1). Here are the minutes of the May 15th Interfaith Action Initiative
Meeting, compiled by Sue Walker:

Thanks to all of you who attended our meeting to share outreach and
mission projects of Northern Berkshire faith communities.  There is
more information to be had, but this is a great and very inspiring
start.  What we learned (in the most basic form)--if incorrect, please
let us all know.

        A program for previous offenders
        Houses part of the Friendship Food Pantry, Ex-Offenders Follow-up
program through Berkshire
                House of Correction, No. Berkshire Comm. Coalition monthly meetings
        Work groups at Louison House
        School clothing drive at the end of August
        Warm clothing drive in November
        NA, AA, Fatherhood program for parolees
        Provides funding and staffing for Camp Ashmere
        Possible program with Soldier On

        Looking for volunteers for Louison House, such as adoption of
transitional families by churches, work
                groups for the House (perhaps work crews through Berkshire House of
Corrections), need for
                transportation to churches

        Has a garden in which is grown produce for the Frienship Center Pantry
        Meal delivery on weekends
        Drivers for Friendship Center (Terry Plum Clark)
        Alanon, AA, NAMI
        Christmas gifts for selected children

        Participates in voucher program for transients
        Weekend meals through Take and Eat
        Pajama drive
        Hosts No. Berkshire Comm. Coalition Neighborly Awards twice yearly
        Participates in Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, Berkshire
Interfaith Organizing
        Hopes to work out some outreach with All Saints Church (same parish
administrator for both congregations)

        Coat collection on Palm Sunday
        Gleaning for Friendship Center Pantry
        Christmas baskets and gifts
        Participates in voucher program
        Provided a grant from UMC of $100,000 to start a Youth Center (ages
14-22) for North Adams
                Need board members and volunteers, people with special skill

Frances Curns
        Well used by community groups for meetings, e.g., AA
        Take and Eat once a month on Sunday
        Thanksgiving meals to shut-ins
        Financial assistance for school children through schools
        Loose plate to an Outreach Children's Fund, occasional special needs
        Electronic re-cycle and shredding event twice yearly
        Beginning this summer, subsidized learn to swim program for 3rd
graders in NA schools at YMCA

        Volunteer drivers
        Funding for summer interns and research fellow in public policy
        Take and Eat
        Students available and interested during the school year

We discussed sharing worship by attending services at other churches
and inviting other faith groups to our own.
It would be useful for No. Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative to
create a subcommittee to look into more interfaith activities.  The
group needs a mission statement!

2). And here, in addition to better coordination of existing house of
worship activites, are some possible activies this committee could

Other ideas (not in any specific order of preference):

• Planning and presenting a Caregiver Appreciation Service.

• Planning and presenting an interfaith Thanksgiving service in the fall.

• Helping continue an interfaith hunger walk in Northern Berkshire.

• Working directly with the Berkshire Interfaith Organizing Project.,
which is working on issues of social justice.

• Ministry to the homeless and/or incarcerated

• Planning and presenting the existing NBIAI TV show, “In the Company
of Friends”

• Planning and helping present our monthly Interfaith public meetings.

• Doing some work along the lines of the group Interfaith Worker
Justice, visit

• Doing outreach to houses of worship on behalf of the NBIAI pantry
and voucher system.

• Other possible interfaith events or outreach?????

Hope to see you June 19th. For those who are coming directly to to the
blog, here’s information about our upcoming meeting:

First meeting June 19 of Interfaith Programs and Events committee

The Friday, June 19, public meeting of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action
Initiative (NBIAI) will be the first meeting of the Initiative’s
Interfaith Programs and Events Subcommittee. All are welcome.
The meeting will be held in the Eagle Street Room of the First Baptist
Church of North Adams at 10 a.m. After introductions and a moment of
silent prayer, we will begin discussion of a mission statement, pick
out some activities to pursue and figure out the time and place of our
next meeting.

This meeting follows a very successful meeting of members of various
local houses of worship on May 15. Participants spoke of what their
churches are doing and shared ideas for further cooperation. The
minutes of this meeting, including participants, current activities
and areas of interest can be found at

Also availlable on the blog is a very preliminary list of other
possible interfaith projects. For more information about the NBIAI or
this meeting call Mark at 413-664-0130.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

2015 Letters Carriers Food Drive

The first delivery of donated food arrives.

Here are some photos from our sorting for the Letter Carriers Food Drive from our letter carrier friends from the North Adams Post Office. More than 45 people volunteered and we collected and weighed 7995 lbs. of food. This will surely go over 8,000 lbs. as late donations trickle in.

We utilized the former Sleepy's mattress store at the corner of American Legion Drive and Main Street as our sorting center. Several of enjoyed the spring expo on Main Street during the inevitable lulls between deliveries. Dan Bird and Kevin Tyree also took a rented van out and picked up food in places such as Village East.

Stan Owczarski and Steve Green at the weighing station.

Sorting the food.

Another delivery arrives. And then another.

Above, the sorting operation seen from the back.

One of our four Williams students who volunteered brings in some food. Below, a good view of the sorting process.

Here's the rented van used by Dan and Kevin to help pick up food.

Lois Hescock and others sorting. Below, Owen, along with his sister, Megan, were powerhouses of collecting and sorting the whole day. Their little brother, Tyler, also pitched in.

Below, Sharon May writes down the 6 p.m. total. As noted above, we finished at 7995 lbs.

Thanks to the letter carriers, everyone who donated and all the volunteers who helped on Saturday!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Our Big Move Next Door to 45 Eagle Street

On Saturday, May 2, about 25 total volunteers, including three MCLA students and one McCann high school student, helped us move from 43 Eagle Street next door to 45 Eagle Street and help our wonderful landlords, Mike and Lois Daunis, move their books and furnishings from 45 over to 43 Eagle Street. 

So we have moved from a roughly 750-square-foot space over to a 1,280-square-foot space. We will have a lot more room for our visiting pantry member friends. Sign-ins at the pantry will still take place at the Eagle Street Room of the First Baptist Church of North Adams.

Here, two volunteers take one of our racks from 43 Eagle Street over to 45 Eagle Street.

The Dickinsons helped us move stuff over, also.

Rich Wolfe with one of our rolling food racks, which helped greatly with the move. 

 The MCLA students were a huge help, here with Steve Green. Below, Nick from McCann's at right. He stayed until the end. With Fran Morandi, back to camera, Steve Green at right, and Kevin Tyree in green shirt (you can't see all of him).

Stan Owczarski and Dan Lampron were among those working on the windows.

Our friends and landlords, Lois and Mike Daunis, moved their books and other items, with help mostly from the MCLA students but from some pantry volunteers, too.

Dan Bird and Al Nelson. Dan helped pull up the duct tape we had secured the rugs down with at 43 Eagle Street. 

Our sign is now up at 45 Eagle Street. As is our window display, below, both courtesy of Stan Owczarski and Louise Zocchi.

I took it upon myself to clean the trash out of the little park next to the building.

My friend and collaborator Al Nelson is amazing. Rich Wolfe cleans the front entryway.

All six of our refrigeration units in a row.

This waiting area in the front nook is one of my favorite features of the new space. We'll see how it works on Wednesday.

Somehow I took all these photos without one of Rich Davis, our food distribution coordinator, but he shows up earlier and works longer than everyone else!