Monday, April 18, 2016

Huge attendance at Food Insecurity follow-up meeting

 We had more than 20 people present, even before the E-3 Academy stopped by in their ongoing research into food insecurity!

We were very pleased that more than 30 people! attended our April 15 meeting to further the discussion of food insecurity.

Our first monthly meeting since last fall, we followed up the April 8 Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum on food insecurity with a talk of our own on the subject, including recent trends in the number of participants, better coordination and cooperation among food programs, the response to the closing of Price Chopper, the Massachusetts Food Trust and more.

We had representatives present from the Berkshire Food Project, the food pantry at St. Patrick's in Williamstown, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, the Berkshire Dream Center, the Letter Carriers Union, New Hope United Methodist Church, Williams College, the Family Center of Child Care of the Berkshires, Adult Basic Ed and several volunteers and board members of the Friendship Center.

We were joined about the half-hour mark by students and teachers of the E-3 alternative education program of the North Adams Public Schools. They are studying food insecurity and have come up with a cookbook using foods frequently available at the Friendship Center. We have mentioned these cookbooks here before but have not had many to give out; we hope to remedy this soon with the help of the program and offer them to our pantry members in the near future.

 Swiped this photo from the Berkshire Interfaith Organizing Facebook page, taken by BIO's associate organizer Jeff Lowenstein.

As usual, we will need plenty of volunteers on Saturday, May 14, to help gather, sort and weigh the food collected in the annual letter carriers food drive. The letter carriers of the North Adams Post Office collect it for the city, Clarksburg and Florida. The Friendship Center leads in the sorting process and we share the results with other programs. If you can help, call the Friendship Center at 413-664-0123 and leave a message.

Since we are getting back into the swing with meetings, we have scheduled another one for May. Our next public meeting will be on Friday, May 20, when Celeste Roeller Harp will make a presentation about the new Age Friendly Berkshires program. Our meetings are held at the First Baptist Church of North Adams, Eagle Street Room, beginning at 10 a.m. All are welcome.

Two more photos from Friday's great meeting: 


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Interfaith meeting continues food discussion on April 15

After a hiatus of several months, the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative will hold a public meeting on Friday, April 15, at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of North Adams Eagle Street Room.

We will continue the discussion of food insecurity, the topic of the April 8, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition Forum. Topics on April 15 likely will include recent trends we've seen at the Friendship Center Food Pantry, the upcoming Letter Carrier Food Drive on Saturday, May 14, better coordination of the work of area food programs, the efforts in which we're involved to return affordable food sales in some form to the former Price Chopper store on State Road in North Adams, the Massachusetts Food Trust, and possible innovations in distributing food from the Friendship Center.

All are welcome to attend. Our meeting begin with a time of silent prayer and optional faith sharing. For more information, call Mark at
At the Coalition forum, volunteers held signs showing the different levels of food insecurity. Below, Abby Getman of the Food Bank showed 2010 census results about North Adams. The more red the area, the more poverty. Northeastern North Adams was one of the most red areas.

This food insecurity discussion will be even more interesting after what happened at the Coalition forum on Friday. Having examined 2010 U.S. Census data, the four representatives of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts present said there is a significant number of unserved people in North Adams. They are looking to get more food into the city.

For me, this raises a number of questions, and I hope we can discuss this at our April 15 meeting. Without going into much detail here, I will note that the number of households the Friendship Center Food Pantry serves each week peaked in 2014 into early 2015, then leveled off. In 2016, the number of households served per week has slipped to a notable extent.

For our April Board of Directors meeting, I went through our records and compiled this interesting statistic: Average number of household visits for the first 14 weeks of the year: 2012: 114. 2013: 143. 2014: 140. 2015: 151. 2016: 139.

Why this decline? An improving economy? People moving out of the area? We really don’t know. This said, I am sure we are missing some people, particularly shut-ins. This is why in March we have formed a sub-committee of the Board of Directors to examine how we can better help the homeless and the question of home deliveries for shut-ins.

The number of households served at the Friendship Center Food Pantry rose constantly from its opening in February, 2011, reaching a peak in 2014 (green line) and early 2015 (orange line). Since then, numbers have leveled off and dropped even more in the first few months of 2016.

Research is needed. Is the 2010 census adequate to 2016? Does the city, which does a census by mail every year, have better numbers, at least for population? Do we need to be open another day of the week? Can the Food Bank’s mobile food pantry help?

Is the stigma against receiving help overly operative in the city? How can we — and other groups, such as the Berkshire Food Project and the  Dream Center — get more food to people?

Please come to our discussion on Friday and help us figure this out. And, of course, there are other related topics on the agenda, such as the May 14 letter carrier food drive, the effort to get affordable and healthy food sales back to Price Chopper and better cooperation between area food programs.

Thanks and God Bless,


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Residents, groups seek meeting with Price Chopper Leadership

For Immediate Release

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. >> Berkshire Interfaith Organizing (BIO) is calling on Price Chopper Board Chairman Neil Golub to meet with representatives of the Brayton Hill development, BIO and other groups to discuss food sales at the site of a Price Chopper store that will close on Feb. 27.

The Schenectady, N,Y.-based Golub Corporation announced earlier this month that the store at 245 State Road, which has been open since 1959 and employed 57 people would close. The store is within walking distance of two low-income neighborhoods, Brayton Hill and the Greylock Valley housing project in North Adams.

Transportation to the other supermarkets in the city is problematic for residents without personal transportation. Indeed, walking downtown or to Stop & Shop in the West End during the winter can be dangerous.

Price Chopper at one time had two stores in North Adams, with one in the former North Adams Plaza on the Curran Highway. Price Chopper currently has stores in Pittsfield, Lenox and Lee in Berkshire County.

The focus of the meeting, organizers said, is to ensure continuing food sales in some form at the site.

Other groups involved with organizing the meeting include the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, which runs the Friendship Center Food Pantry, the largest food pantry in North Adams. Leaders of that group are concerned that the area around the closing store will now become a “food desert” for those of limited means and transportation without continuing food sales at the Price Chopper site.

Berkshire Interfaith Organizing is part of a New England organizing network, with five other similar groups, called the InterValley Project. BIO consists of 16 congregations and groups throughout Berkshire County, including several in Pittsfield and south county.

“We are communicating with and working with local residents and consumers most directly affected by this closing,” said Rev. Mark Longhurst, pastor of First Congregational Church, Williamstown, and member of the BIO Executive Board. “We applaud the outplacement and other services Price Chopper is providing for its employees. However, we are concerned about continuing access to affordable and healthy food at this site after Price Chopper leaves.”

On its corporate website, the company states, “Price Chopper has an 80-year history of doing what is right in the communities we serve.”

Said Longhurst, “We would like more information about plans for the site. We are concerned about the impact this closing will have on the people in this part of North Adams. We are seeking a direct and meaningful discussion with Mr. Golub about the future of the site, particularly as it relates to food access.”

BIO is governed by an executive council made up of representatives from its 16 member congregations and groups in Berkshire County; it employs two community organizers and a communications specialist. Since November it has been headquartered at Shire City Sanctuary at 40 Melville St. in Pittsfield.

According to a press release on the Price Chopper website, Scott Grimmett became CEO of the Golub Corporation in January 2016. He reports to the board of directors through Neil Golub, who remains executive chairman.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Very Busy Wednesday, 5th Anniversary, Micah Awards Dinner

 This photo was taken earlier today at the Friendship Center Food Pantry around 1 p.m. after the big rush earlier had slowed down somewhat.

A Busy Day at the Friendship Center

Today, Wednesday, Jan. 27, was a very busy day at the Friendship Center Food Pantry. In the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. session we served 135 households and in the 4 to 6 p.m. session we served 60 households for a total of 195 for the day, our largest total by far this year. We added 4 new households and at least one new volunteer.

Our volunteers rose to the occasion, whether at the Eagle Street Room, at the food pantry or with the rides program. I asked and by about 1 p.m. we had given 21 rides!

Thanks to all of our great volunteers.

Friendship Center Food Pantry Will turn 5 years old

The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative (NBIAI) will observe its fifth anniversary in February.

It’s been an eventful five years since a bunch of food distribution novices – working with the advice of some real experts – served 27 households from our original space at 43 Eagle St. on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. The following Wednesday, March 2, we served only 14 households, our all-time low. But numbers quickly picked up to the point that we have served more than 200 families on a Wednesday
several times.

Along the way, we have developed into a true Friendship Center, with access to numerous services available at our member intake point in the Eagle Street Room of the First Baptist Church of North Adams.

A formal observance of the food pantry's fifth anniversary has not been finalized yet. Please stay tuned for more information about this in the future. Meanwhile, there will be no third-Friday interfaith meeting in February.

But more than numbers, it has really been about the people. The many friends we’ve made, and those we’ve said goodbye to, also – both pantry members and volunteers.

The NBIAI is a group of people of different faiths and denominations working together with others of good will to serve our community. For more information about the NBIAI, call Mark at 413-664-0130 or email To contact the Friendship Center, call 413-664-0123.

Kathy Hrach accepts Micah Award


Kathy Hrach, right, accepts her award from BIO 2nd Vice President Moira Jones.

The NBIAI is a member of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing. BIO held its first annual Micah Awards Dinner on Sunday, Jan. 24.

BIO is working on food security and transportation issues. Each member group got to choose an honoree. Ours was Kathy Hrach. Kathy, a senior at Williams College, was our first ever intern over the summer. She helped set up and coordinate our volunteer rides home program and gave many rides for it. She also did several one on one conversations with our pantry members and was a go-between for us with BIO. Even as a very busy college student Kathy is still coordinating our rides program.

Here is a press release I wrote about the event, helpfully edited by Wendy Krom, BIO lead organizer and a friend:

Berkshire Interfaith Organizing honors unsung heroes

PITTSFIELD  -- Almost to the day that they held their Founding Convention a year before in the very same place, the faith-based activists of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing stopped to celebrate.

The 2016 Micah Awards Dinner, held at the former St. Mark’s School on Columbus Avenue on Sunday, Jan. 24, was yet another first for the group. Berkshire Interfaith 0rganizing is an interfaith group of clergy, congregations and regional affiliates who seek to make justice real in our communities.

Currently BIO’s focus is on issues of food security and transportation, with regular team meetings to set goals, discuss strategy and take action.  The group played a part in its first year in securing $2 million more in funding for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Program, which provides goods for food programs throughout the state.

Building community and developing priorities through-one-to-one conversations, BIO concentrates on relationship building and leadership development, as well as systemic community change.

Nearly 300 people packed the auditorium at St. Mark’s to pay tribute to nominees chosen from among the members of 12 of its 16 member groups. Including a college student, a college professor, retirees, two nuns and more, all the nominees have made their mark through active service. They were chosen because they help exemplify the verse from the book of Micah from which the dinner gets its name: “The Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.”

The groups and their nominees: Cathedral in the Night, Pittsfield: its volunteers; Congregation Beth Israel, North Adams, Ed Oshinsky; Congregation Knesset Israel, Pittsfield: Cindy Tatalovich; First Church of Christ, Pittsfield: Grace Hutchins, posthumous award; First Congregational Church, Dalton: Leslie Hazelton; First Congregational Church, Williamstown: Carolyn Behr; Lee Congregational Church, Lee: Judy Morehouse; Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative: Kathy Hrach; Sisters of St. Joseph: Sr. Kathryn Flanagan and Sr. Barbara Faille; South Congregational Church, Pittsfield: Mary Wheat; St. Mark Catholic Church, Pittsfield: Dick Murphy; St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown: Jim Mahon; St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Pittsfield: Joan Evans.

Given that food security plays such a strong role both in BIO’s activism and in the extensive volunteerism of so many of the Micah Award nominees, it seemed appropriate that its members and guests gathered together for a meal, prepared by chef Robin Lenz, of St. John’s Episcopal Church, herself an active volunteer. Donations of food and supplies were made by BJ’s Wholesale, Guido’s Fresh Marketplace and Mazzeo’s Meats.

Before, during and after the awards program, members from the various congregations freely mingled, exchanging hugs, handshakes and stories. Though in different congregations or groups, many attendees have known each other for years and over time have volunteered for the same programs or attended community workshops together. And in a year plus of BIO, these bonds have only grown, through meetings and numerous activities, such as in numerous community organizing trainings or a
trip to Boston and the Statehouse that two vanloads of BIO activists took in September.

Berkshire Interfaith Organizing is part of a New England organizing network, with five other similar groups, called the InterValley Project, “Organizing for Justice in New England and the Nation.”

BIO is governed by an executive council made up of representatives from its member congregations and groups; it employs two community organizers and a communications specialist. Since November it has been headquartered at Shire City Sanctuary at 40 Melville St. in Pittsfield.

For more information about BIO, call Wendy Krom, Lead Organizer, at 413-464-1804, or email:

Her are the 2016 Micah award recipients. Sitting to Kathy's right is Ed Oshinsky, who has volunteered with us as a truck driver in the past; to her left is Jim Mahon, who is board president of the Berkshire Food Project. In the back row, third from left is Carolyn Behr of Williamstown who helped us greatly with two clothing sales and whose husband, Bob, volunteers at the Friendship Center.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A tribute to Stan Owczarski – A Strong and Generous Man

Stan lifts a bucket of donated food collected during a recent annual Letter Carriers Food Drive. Taking his photo is Joan Bates, North Adams postmaster.

Many of you likely have heard by now the very sad news of the untimely and unexpected passing on Saturday of Stan Owczarski, food pantry volunteer, NBIAI Board member, good friend.

Stan was a strong, noble, humorous and compassionate man.

He showed up to volunteer at the Friendship Center one day during the first year of the food pantry in 2011 and gradually took on increasing responsibilities. He became our second volunteer coordinator two years ago and joined our board of directors and finance committee.

Stan and his wife, Joan, also introduced, developed and produced the name tag lanyards our volunteers wear.

Stan doing the grilling at the 2015 Friendship Center volunteer picnic he held at his home.

As volunteer coordinator Stan did many important things. For the last two years he and his wife, Joan, hosted our annual volunteer cookout at his home in North Adams. Stan for the past two years also coordinated concession volunteers from the Friendship Center at several SteepleCats baseball games to raise funds.

In recent years, Stan became the captain for the front of the Friendship Center during the daytime session on Wednesdays. As such, he kept the flow of pantry visitors going, oversaw cab and volunteer rides, and generally insured safety and a positive, friendly atmosphere. I always knew things were in good hands.

Safety was important to Stan, a longtime member of the Ski Patrol and he made sure we have a good stock of emergency medical supplies on site. Early on, at the invitation of our first volunteer coordinator, Denise Krutiak, Stan gave the volunteers a useful instructional workshop on safety.

Stan had a great rapport with our food pantry guests, and they will miss him as much as we will. To help make the Friendship Center a welcoming place, he worked with Louise Zocchi to regularly update our front display window area to reflect the seasons with well-done decorating.

Part of my personal shock on hearing the news was that Stan was such a vigorous man. The term “force of nature” comes to mind. He was an outdoorsman, a bicyclist and a skier, as noted above. It may have been during the summer about a year ago, I was driving south down Route 8 in Vermont in the virtually uninhabited area of south Readsboro and north Stamford. All of sudden, there’s Stan on his bicycle, miles from North Adams. I knew he’d have no trouble getting home, so I didn’t stop!

Stan in his Yankee hat with our friend Keith the mailman.
One thing about Stan that kept things interesting was that he was a very passionate New York Yankee fan among mostly Red Sox fans. This insured a continuing running battle of quips and insults over the merits of the rival baseball teams — all in good fun, of course!

I was planning to write a post this week about happy things such as our last public meeting, new board members, big donations and the Friendship Center’s upcoming fifth anniversary. And I still wish I was, because it would mean that this good man would still be among us.

I met Stan, a fellow Roman Catholic, about 10 years ago, when St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church was trying to restart its St. Vincent de Paul Society local conference. I didn’t know him very well and neither of us became longtime members of that group. But Stan became one of many people I have come to know and love through the six years of the NBIAI and the Friendship Center Food Pantry.

Not that he and I always saw completely eye to eye, but we always worked things out, quickly and without rancor. Stan's generosity helped a lot. He saw I carried around important NBIAI/food pantry papers in a crummy old, ripped satchel, so he found me a nice new one. He thought I could use a laptop for NBIAI/Friendship Center business and found me one that has worked out very well.

So, sometimes goodbyes seem to take forever; other times you don’t get to say goodbye at all. This was one of the latter. But I – and many others, I am sure – are grateful for having to gotten to know Stan, and I thank God for that.

Our deepest condolences to Joan, their children and grandchildren and the rest of Stan's family and many friends.

Goodbye, Stan. Thanks for everything. Hope to see you on the other side. 

Stan takes a break with Steve Green during a recent Letter Carrier Food Drive. Below, Stan and Anne Nelson at the front desk at our original location at 43 Eagle St. in North Adams.

Above is a photo of Stan, me and fellow NBIAI/Friendship Center board member and volunteer Corinne Case at a health fair that was organized at St. Elizabeth Parish by Denise Vigna. Stan went around to every table, talking to people and collecting pens, information and other goodies. Judy Bombardier took this photo for us with my phone.

Here, Stan, in red jacket, standing sideways to the camera, is ready to help unload the truck with food one Tuesday. What makes this photo especially moving is that the man with his back to the camera in black jacket is Henry Bounds, another of our great-hearted volunteers, who also passed away suddenly. We also fondly remember Rose Maynard and Jim May. 


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

E3 Students Design Cookbook for Friendship Center Food Pantry Members

The cover of the cookbook. Below, Mayor Dick Alcombright at left talks with the E3 students on Tuesday. (Thanks to Bert Lamb with help on photography during the press conference).



(Press Release from the E3 program)

NORTH ADAMS -- On Tuesday, December 15, the E3 Academy of Drury High School will present its latest creation to the Friendship Center: E3 COOKS, a cookbook for users of the Friendship Center food pantry. The cookbook features 27 recipes the students identified as healthy and that make use of ingredients available through the food pantry. They then tested all the recipes, using the kitchen at the UNO Community Center.

The cookbook is the culmination of months of hard work as the students studied the food system in general and food insecurity in particular. Beginning with field trips to local farms and the Friendship Center…to working at the Berkshire Food Project…to hearing from speakers from The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and the Growing Healthy Gardens Project…to researching and producing presentations of various aspects of the food system, the students have come to understand the food system and the impact of food insecurity on their neighbors as well as others throughout the world. With generous support from the UNO Center, which allowed us to use its kitchen, the students prepared and taste-tested recipes that made use of many of the foods available at the Friendship Center and incorporated as many vegetables as possible.

In the course of the project, the students practiced a variety of academic skills, including research, expository and persuasive writing, presentation and public speaking, fractions, measuring and scaling, calculating nutritional values and word problems, as well as life skills, including collaboration, decision making, consideration for others, making a positive contribution to their community, using positive communication skills, and conflict resolution. “And how to ruin a pan!” says Senior Charles Talis

The Cooking for (Real) Life project was funded by a North Adams Public Schools Service-Learning Mini-Grant.

WHAT: Presentation of the E3 Cookbook to the Friendship Center

WHEN: Tuesday, December 15, 11:00 a.m.

WHERE: The Friendship Center Food Pantry, 45 Eagle Street 

About E3 Academy

The E3 Academy, which stands for Effort, Employability and Essential skills and knowledge, is a competency-based program of Drury High School. The program features a non-traditional classroom setup for students at risk of leaving school. For more information about the E3 Academy, please call 413-662-3275 or email

About the Friendship Center

The Friendship Center Food Pantry is a program of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative Inc. Located at 45 Eagle St., in North Adams. the Friendship Center serves families in need in
North Adams, Clarksburg and Florida and is open every
 Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. In November it served an average of 172 households per week.

Open since 2011, the program has evolved into a true “Friendship Center.” A few years ago, to avoid long lines outside of the food pantry in all kinds of weather, the organization started using the Eagle Street room at the First Baptist Church of North Adams for a sign-in and waiting area. After their turn to sign in, pantry members proceed down the street to pick up their food at 45 Eagle St. This process provides the opportunity to bring in more services for them, including a nurse and representatives of numerous local social services organizations.

For more information about the Friendship Center, call 413-664-0123 or email

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.