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Fighting hunger 1 meal at a time

For 30 years, Community Meals Program has been on the front lines

Pam Page from the First Church of Deerfield serves food during the community meal at the Second Congregational church in Greenfield. The Franklin County Community Meals Program is turning 30 this year.
Recorder file photo/Peter MacDonald

Pam Page from the First Church of Deerfield serves food during the community meal at the Second Congregational church in Greenfield. The Franklin County Community Meals Program is turning 30 this year. Recorder file photo/Peter MacDonald

GREENFIELD — The Franklin County Community Meals Program gave out more food in 2013 than any other year in its 30-year history — a milestone that Executive Director Sharon Pleasant finds both inspiring and troubling.

On one hand, she’s glad that the community was able to rally together to help serve 20,733 free meals last year at sites across the county and donate food that went to 15,879 people who visited food pantries.

But on the other hand, the increase shows that the county’s need for food continues to rise.

People are seeing their government benefits reduced and their fuel costs going up, she said. Some are losing jobs. Nearly half of those who are served are children.

“The people that we’re seeing are working families ... that come in, often in tears, never thinking they’d find themselves here,” said Pleasant, who succeeded Amy Clarke as the program’s executive director last July.

The program, which turns 30 this month, will host its annual breakfast auction Tuesday to try to raise at least $10,000 for future food purchasing. The event, which starts at 7:30 a.m. at Deerfield Academy, costs $5 and features a New England breakfast, silent auction and live auction.

The program began in 1984 when the social justice group at Greenfield’s All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church reached out to religious and social organizations asking for help in providing free meals for the community.

It has since expanded to serve five free meals a week at three sites in Greenfield, Turners Falls and Orange. Groups, clubs and businesses volunteer for a specific date, and then gather, prepare and serve all of the food for that meal — often with enough for people to take home leftovers as well.

The program opened up a food pantry in Orange in 1995 and another at Greenfield Community College in 2011 for the school’s students and staff. Those, too, depend on community support, Pleasant said.

Government cuts and an increase in food prices means that recently there’s been less free or discounted food coming into the pantries from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, she said. Local businesses and clubs conduct food drives and grocery stores routinely give fresh produce, frozen meat and canned goods.

“We truly, truly are a community meals program,” said Pleasant. “We serve the community and we depend on the community. ... (Combating) hunger is something that people feel the need to support.”

The program runs on an annual budget of just over $100,000 with paid staff who together work between 40 and 50 hours a week total (Pleasant herself works 30 hours a week).

Pleasant said the meal program often isn’t eligible for government grants. Since people who attend the meals don’t need to provide personal information, the program usually lacks the data necessary to apply.

Still, she hopes the program can continue to grow — increasing its local partnerships, especially with farms and co-ops, to provide healthier options for people.

The auction, the program’s largest fundraiser of the year, will run for about 90 minutes on Tuesday morning. Rich Fahey, the former advertising director for The Recorder, will serve as auctioneer.

Free meals every week

The program’s meals are free and doors always open at 5 p.m. with food served at 5:30 p.m. Churches allow the program to host meals in their spaces for free, said Pleasant.

They’re offered at the Our Lady of Peace Church in Turners Falls on Mondays, the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange on Mondays and Thursdays.

The Orange Pantry, located at 118 East Main St., is open every Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., except when there is a fifth Thursday in a month.

The GCC pantry, which serves only students and staff, is open on Mondays and Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when classes are in session. It’s located at the main campus.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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