Of the Earth: Pantry lies at the heart of food security network

  • Natasha Lowe of Deerfield is a volunteer at the Center for Self-Reliance Food Pantry. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


Published: 6/26/2018 2:01:38 PM

I’m not sure I ever really understood the extent and complexity of the food security network in Franklin County until I visited the Center for Self-Reliance Food Pantry on Osgood Street in Greenfield last week.

The pantry, operated along with a sister site in Shelburne Falls by Community Action of Pioneer Valley, lies somewhere near the center of a happily interconnected web of farms, human services agencies and motivated individuals who — with the blessing of good soil, good hearts, good volunteers and strong backs — continue to succeed in getting fresh food to where it is needed most.

It’s one thing to use the word “network” in a glib, organizational way. It’s another to see it is action.

As I chatted with coordinator Justin Costa one recent morning, shortly after the pantry opened at 10 a.m., program participants drifted in and out along with volunteers, everyone interacting in the kind of casual way that made it unclear who was there in what capacity. One man sipped coffee and helped himself to a cookie, while a woman waited patiently for the fresh produce to be delivered.

“I’m in here every week, weather providing,” said the woman, explaining that while she enjoys access to the once-monthly grocery items, many of which come from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, it’s the once weekly access to fresh vegetables and fruit that is most important to her.

“It’s extremely helpful. I get to eat a pretty good diet, and the people, like Justin, are really good, too. I thrive on this,” she said.

The Center for Self-Reliance has been around since 2000 under the long-time steady hand of Dino Schnelle, and started as a day shelter. Costa, a native of New Jersey by way of Montana, took over about two years ago, having worked from the Boston and western Massachusetts food banks for several years.

Last year, the pantry distributed about 350,000 pounds of food, about one-third of which is fresh, local and delivered free-of-charge by area growers, said Costa. That local component included:

a twice weekly truck delivery by Deerfield’s Atlas Farms, about 10,000 pounds last year;

an ongoing gleaning effort by Temple Israel in Greenfield;

a five-day a week meat and produce delivery by Big Y of Greenfield;

baked goods contributed by the local Stop and Shop;

weekly contributions by vendors at the Greenfield Farmers Market.

So, which farms contribute produce, I asked Costa, acknowledging that this is not something that growers had ever mention or taken credit for, including Gideon Porth at Atlas Farms, whom I had rather extensively asked about the intersection of farming and social justice.

“Everybody,” said Costa. “I don’t want to single anyone out. It’s everybody.”

“It’s a very strong network, a lot of partnerships to keep people fed,” he continued. “There is a big part of me, of course, that thinks it’s great. But it’s also terrifying that there is so much waste, a big gap between abundance and need.”

That gap is only widening, acknowledged Costa. Last year, about 3,600 people access the pantry.

“Some folks come in, and we won’t see them (again) for a couple years,” he said. “Maybe they come in after breaking an arm and getting laid off, or maybe they’re on a fixed income and have trouble making it through the month. Most hear about us through word of mouth, from family and friends.”

If it becomes harder to access the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as currently outlined in federal farm bill, he said, that number is bound to increase.

The big thing on Costa’s plate right now is the annual Fill the Belly Bus Food Drive, a Franklin County Hunger Taskforce effort that Costa co-chairs with Mary McClintock, who wrote a food column for the Recorder for 10 years and is now community collaboration coordinator for Community Action. On Aug. 3, buses will fan out collecting food that has been gathered by business and organizations across the county. The fundraiser helps fill in gaps between the end of the summer youth meal program and the beginning of school.

The Center for Self-Reliance pantry is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The West County Food Pantry in Shelburne at 51 Maple St. is open on the second, third and fourth Wednesdays of every month, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at: wesleyblixt@me.com

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