Saturday, April 23, 2011

Getting Ready for the Letter Carriers’ Food Drive


The annual Letter Carriers’ Food Drive to Stamp Out Hunger will be held on Saturday, May 14. Put your non-perishable donation in a bag by your mailbox, and your letter carrier will pick it up.

The food collected will be divided up among local food pantries.

One local food distributor looking forward to the drive is the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative’s Friendship Center food pantry at 43 Eagle St. in North Adams.

At the April Interfaith Action Initiative meeting, local letter carrier and Initiative supporter Dick Dassatti discussed the drive with the Friendship Center food pantry leadership team, representatives of other Northern Berkshire food pantries and staff from the Berkshire Community Action Council. We went over how the food will be collected and how it will be equitably divided between pantries.

Nourishing non-perishable foods are needed. In its first nine weeks of operation, the Friendship Center has served 27, 14, 36, 21, 65, 53, 55, 49, and 62 households. We now have more than 200 member families, mainly in North Adams, and we expect this number to keep growing.

The need is enormous. Recent Department of Agriculture statistics measuring hunger in the United States show that the number of Americans living in homes lacking sufficient food topped 50 million in 2009 with one in three of those—17.2 million—a child.

Items most helpful and nutritious for those served by food pantries include: Fruit juice, juice boxes, cold cereals, hot cereals, macaroni and cheese, baked beans or pork and beans, canned beef stew, canned pasta (Ravioli, etc), peanut butter, jelly, canned fruit, rice, canned or instant potatos, Bisquick/pancake mix and syrup, coffee and tea, soups, tuna, canned meats, packaged food (such as Rice-a-Roni, Lipton’s, etc.), spaghetti sauce, pasta, canned vegetables, condiments (such as ketchup, mayo, mustard, etc), cake mix, brownie mix, puddings and powdered milk.

Also needed are such things as baby food and formula, disposable diapers, shampoo, tooth paste, paper goods and toilet paper.

For more information, visit the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Food Drive website at

Two things Almost go without saying. One is that we will need plent of volunteer power to sort through all this food. Second, you will be seeing and hearing more about this here and elsewhere in the coming three weeks.

God bless all of you,


Friday, April 22, 2011

On Food and Friendship


“I don’t feel poor when I’m here.”

These words came recently from a visitor to and member of the Friendship Center food pantry, and we discussed this comment some at the April 15 meeting of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative.

We covered a lot of ground at this meeting and had a dynamic and informative discussion about the food pantry and the upcoming letter carriers’ food drive on Saturday, May 14.

It was indeed an informative discussion. I, for one, did not understand how the letter carriers’ food drive worked until we discussed it that day with Dick Dassatti and others who have been involved with it in the past.

For the sake of not presenting too much at once, however, I am going to break the April 15 meeting up into two blog posts — the first on the evaluation of the food pantry and the second on the food drive.

So far, we have served — as I write this on April 22 — 27, 14, 36, 21, 65, 53, 55, 49, and 62 households. We now have just over 200 households signed up as members.

At the beginning of evaluating our food pantry operation at the meeting, I said I thought we deserved an "A" in our first eight weeks of operation. I was pleased when Shirley McDonald of the Berkshire Community Action Council also said she thought we deserved that grade.

But, as I said at the meeting, as important as giving out food is the attitude of treating our visitors with respect, as friends, as brothers and sisters. Our time of prayer before we open the front door each Wednesday helps remind us of this.

Our discussion focused on ways of getting more food and other necessities from the Food Bank and through working with local supermarkets and stores like CVS. Al Nelson brought up the very good point about an action plan for each of these items.

We need people to fully investigate our relationships with the three supermarkets in North Adams, and Wal-Mart and CVS. To an extent, members are already taking this upon themselves. We can see how that goes over the next several weeks and see if we need to take some more concerted effort.

We also need an action plan to reach out to our houses of worship for food, funds and volunteers. In developing an action plan for faith communities, things can get a bit more complicated than in reaching out to local grocery and general items stores, which are mostly located in North Adams.

For instance, though we are an Interfaith group for all of Northern Berkshire, in seeking to connect with faith communities for donations of food and funds do we need to confine our efforts just to the communities we serve with the food pantry — Ie. North Adams, Florida and Clarksburg? This hesitancy is because these communities each have their own food pantries, and we don't want to impinge on their efforts. As the pantry in Williamstown is small, perhaps we can work out a cooperative sharing arrangement for food and funds and perhaps can freely recruit volunteers from there.

Indeed, we do need more volunteers. We are open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Wednesday at 43 Eagle St., next to Papyri Books.

Volunteers do such things as fill orders of food from our shelves for those who come for food, help with the registration process and record keeping, and greet people at the door. Volunteers do not have to serve the whole three hours or every week — even working one hour or one day occasionally can give a regular volunteer a break.

Those interested in volunteering may contact volunteer coordinator Denise Krutiak at

As for funds, as Shirley McDonald said at our April 15 meeting, if we wish to get more food, we need to start fundraising. Fortunately, we already do have some donated money in the bank. But we could use more.

Right now, the biggest reason to seek more funds is because of cuts in funding of programs for the poor in the federal budget. It’s already happened for the remainder of this fiscal year and very likely to continue in the next. So we may end up having to buy food ourselves to have enough to give out.

In addition, it’s important to note a very interesting aspect of the food pantry “business” — pantries usually can get more mileage out of a direct cash donation of money than a donation of food. The reason is simple: Food can be purchased from food banks by food pantries for less than supermarket prices — often for much less than supermarket prices. So the donated dollar can go much further than one spent for a can of food at a supermarket.

Anyone wishing to make a monetary donation to the food pantry shoud make a check out to the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative and send it to 43 Eagle St., North Adams MA 01247.

We eventually may put a Paypal feature on our Facebook page, but we’re not there yet.

Our next meeting

The next meeting of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative will be held on Friday, May 20, at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of North Adams (use Eagle Street entrance).

Our meetings, which are open to people of all faiths, begin with a time of silent prayer and faith sharing, followed by announcements. People of all faiths and all people of goodwill are welcome to attend.

In May, the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative will be one year old. We may or may not have a birthday cake at the next meeting. But what an interesting year it’s been. From a drumming circle at the Downtown Celebration in August to a Friendship Center and food pantry in February!

We may have a discussion on affordable housing with a group from Boston at our May meeting, but as I write this I have not yet heard back from them.

Other thoughts

• Our volunteers continue to be incredible. So many wonderful people so many of whom I didn’t know a year ago.

• I went into the Friendship Center today and discovered that Stuart Crampton has made a wonderful certificate (suitable for framing and public display) that we can give to businesses that help us.

• I wish to thank John McDonald of Williamstown for giving us a desktop Canon copier in good working condition. (See photo below). And thanks to Liz Boland for letting me know it was available.

• Mike and Lois Daunis are still the people, more than anyone else, who have made the Friendship Center and the food pantry possible.

• I hope all my Jewish and Christian friends have had and are having good holy days in their respective traditions.

God bless you all,


Photos: All 21 of us present at the April 15 Interfaith meeting at the First Baptist Church of North Adams. Photo by Bert Lamb. Below: The copier donated to the Friendship Center by John McDonald of Williamstown.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Friendship Center Food Pantry Receives Neighborly Award

On Wednesday evening, April 13, volunteers from the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative Friendship Center Food Pantry received a good neighbor award at the periodic "Neigborlies" awards event presented by Northern Berkshire Neighbors. The event was held at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Pictured here are (l-r) volunteers Stuart Crampton, Steve Green, Mark Lincourt, Al Nelson, North Adams Mayor Dick Alcombright in back, Corrine Case, and Sister Natalie Cain.

(Thanks to Bert Lamb for taking and sending us the photo!)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Agenda for April 15 Interfaith Meeting

Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative

Meeting: April 15, 2011, 10 a.m. to Noon

First Baptist Church of North Adams

1). Welcome/introductions.

2). Announcements.

3). Moment of silent prayer.

4). Update on Letter Carrier Food Drive (Dick Dassatti, Al Nelson, Corrine Case)

5). Evaluation of Food Pantry operation after eight weeks. What has gone well, what could be improved.

A). Impressions of what has gone well and what can be improved in food pantry operation.

B). Letting people know what we have that week; equipment; parking, what else?

6). Finding more sources of food.

A). Can we get larger allocation from the Western Mass. Food Bank? Including possibly buying food at reduced cost? Should we take a trip to Hatfield?

B). More work with local supermarkets?

C). Working with local faith communities for donations of food and


D). Working with national companies and non-profits, including to get donations of toiletries not covered by Food Stamps?

E). Locally grown produce?

7). Start to identify grants for things we can use, whether food, equipment or training?

8). Beginning preliminary search for larger space in downtown NA.

9). Other business. Update on voucher system (Stuart Crampton)

10). Next meeting Friday, May 20. Guests are available to come who wish to speak to grassroots groups about affordable housing.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Assessing success — surveying the challenges ahead


Except for the simple things in life, nothing good is ever easy. And so it has been with the food pantry at the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative Friendship Center.

Not easy, but it has been a very good thing.

As I write this on April 9, we have been open for seven weeks. In that time we have served 27, 14, 36, 21, 65, 53, and 55 households. Notice how the last three weeks have doubled and tripled the numbers of the earlier weeks.

Many good things stand out: Great volunteers; a great working relationship with our various partners, including the Berkshire Community Action Council and the Western Mass Food Bank; the development of solid and effective procedures to serve our friends who visit; and perhaps most of all — for want of a better way of putting it — a spiritual, friendly and loving attitude in our service.

Our next Interfaith Action Initiative meeting will be held on Friday, April 15, at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of North Adams (use Eagle Street entrance). At this meeting, we will discuss what has been going well in our food pantry operation and what could be improved. So far, I can say we’ve been doing great.

But as the crowd of visitors the last three weeks — and the photo below, taken today — indicates, we need to find ways of getting more food. Whether this consists of getting more from the Western Mass. Food Bank through BCAC, I don’t know. For one thing, we need to find out what impact the federal budget deal will have on our supply of food in the short- and mid-term.

It’s occurred to me that while we would not have too difficult a time in finding an adequate number of volunteers to open a second time on Wednesdays, in the evening, we absolutely would not have enough food.

Opening more hours is, I think, at least six months to a year away.

I can see several fronts we may want to discuss taking preliminary action on:

1). Increasingly surveying and working with local supermarkets to get food. In addition, looking at national sources of food, such as applying directly to companies. We also may want to look at working with companies to get needed items such as diapers and toiletries. And there is the matter of the upcoming annual Post Office food drive in May. (Al Nelson has been looking into this and can give us a report).

2). Setting up a network with local houses of worship in which they periodically take up collections of money and food for us. This could also be a source of volunteers.

3). We also will probably want someone to start looking into grants and writing grant applications for funds. (If we can use funds to buy food from the Food Bank at reduced cost, that would also be a good fundaising pitch.)

I know some of you are particularly interested in each of these areas. Perhaps we can discuss creating a task force for each.

Other food pantry issues that we may discuss on Friday include further needs for the Friendship Center, such as a computer; parking for volunteers; possibly making a visit to the Food Distribution Center just opened in Bennington by their Interfaith group; ways to give our visitors an updated idea each week of what foods are available for them; and my discussions with the Berkshire County Superior Court probation department.

When it comes to the Interfaith Action Initiave itself we may want to start looking into a larger location for the Friendship Center. I’m very happy with where we are now, but eventally we will need a larger space and the idea was that this would be a temporary location for our services center. I know that the city and Catholic Charities, among others are quite interested in this issue, but I do not know the status of discussions.

Naturally, people first were interested in if and how we would get the Friendship Center food pantry off the ground. Now that we have proven we are up to the task, we need to keep with the original vision. Plus, frankly, finding a larger space right in the downtown that we can afford is not going to be easy. All the more reason to start looking into it now — and looking for grant funding.

At Friday’s meeting, I imagine we will also check in on how to move forward with further study of preserving and expanding the Williamstown church voucher system. And our moment of silence and prayer will be important, too. In fact, our prayer before the Friendship Center’s doors open is a signature part of what it’s all about. Personally, it reminds me why I’m there and how I want to respond to every situation during those three hours the front door is open.


A few notes of interest.

• Last Sunday, Dave Babcock, of First Baptist in North Adams, held his Sunday School class in the Friendship Center. I opened the door for him and his class. When I came back to lock up, there was a 134-pound donation of food in numerous bags!

• When I came in the next day, there was also a 35-pound donation of food from the Congregational and Methodist churches in North Adams!

• Thanks to Shriley Davis’ son Bob, who last Wednesday anchored the shelves we have in back to the wall. That is the second task he has done for us.

• Don’t forget the Northern Berkshire Neighbors awards event on Wednesday, April 13, at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, which is located at 53 Lois St. in North Adams. Lois Street is the second left past Stop and Shop heading west toward Williiamstown. There will be an opening reception at 5 p.m., with refreshments and a chance to visit with others. Mayor Alcombright will help with the award ceremony, which will begin at 5:15 p.m. and ending about 6:15 p.m.

We will receive a recognition certificate that we can hang up in the Friendship Center. I won’t be able to attend because of work. But I hope someone will take photos, as I would like to post one or more here.

God Bless all of you,


Photos: top: During a lull on April 6, are (l-r) volunteers Wendy Lyons, Erik Wobus, Denise Krutiak and, at the desk, Sue Walker. Below: Taken April 9, this photo shows the diminished amount of food that was left after we closed the doors on Wednesday. The boxes under the first shelf used to hold lots of extra food. They don’t anymore.