Despite challenges, alleviating hunger one meal at a time

  • A bicyclist picks up some meals from Deb Klein, board Member of the Franklin County Community Meal, and Meal Site Coordinator Tammy Newell, at the side entrance to the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield in this photo taken last May. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 3/18/2021 2:16:23 PM

On Thursday, March 12, 2020, we called the Orange town administrator to ask if the regularly scheduled free community dinner Franklin County Community Meals Program held at the Orange Armory could take place. “I was just going to call you,” she said. “We’re closing the Armory and no one is allowed inside.” That night we handed out dinner to the people who were depending on us from the driveway of our Orange Food Pantry across the street, flagging down people as they drove into the Armory parking lot.

Thus began a change to the model under which Franklin County Community Meals Program (FCCMP) operated for more than 35 years. The mission of working in partnership with the community to alleviate hunger would need to adjust to reflect the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

We began wearing masks and social distancing immediately. By March 19 we had changed our Orange Food Pantry to a drive-thru model and changed the schedules of volunteers there to be sure they could safely social distance.

Our meal sites in Greenfield, Turners Falls and Orange were changed to distribution sites of bagged meals of non-perishable food. While we missed the camaraderie of the volunteer community groups that normally provided hot dinners for our free community meals, we could no longer go inside the buildings in which we prepared the hot meals.

While some community groups continued to offer their help, we had to decline their help in the interest of keeping everyone — staff, volunteers and meal guests — safe.

By May, we were working with local restaurants, caterers and chefs to bring hot meals back to our sites using their expertise to assure efficiency and food safety. With hot meal distribution again in place at our Turners Falls and Greenfield meal sites, we began to design long-term models that could sustain our work through the pandemic and re-engage long-standing partners and volunteer groups.

In September, we piloted a restaurant sponsorship program through Brad’s Place at our Greenfield meal site, and later, began a similar partnership with Hillside Organic Catering for our Orange and Turners Falls sites. These approaches allow community members to sponsor free community meals to those in need and invest in the local economy.

We have also created COVID-safe protocols to welcome volunteers back to prepare and distribute hot meals; this provides volunteer groups and community members a choice for how to contribute in a way that feels safe and meaningful in this “new normal.” In response to the requests of those receiving our meals, we have also been supplementing hot meals with produce and pantry items at all three of our meal sites.

The changes brought on by COVID-19 led to an increase in hunger across our rural county. By June our Turners Falls meal site alone was serving 180-plus meals weekly, four times its pre-pandemic average. As an organization, these changes required increased staffing, increased spending, and increased need for community collaboration to address the growing need.

We are grateful that individual donors, businesses and foundations have provided funds to help FCCMP meet new financial demands. We are grateful to the community that again provided over 1,000 non-perishable meals at February’s Brown Bag Brigade. The 2020 Brown Bag Brigade was the basis of all our meals in the early days of COVID — what would we have done without those meals?

While 40-plus groups are not currently providing hot meals in Greenfield, Orange and Turners Falls, we have deepened what it means to work in partnership with the community through increased collaboration and community support. While it hasn’t been easy to transform all of our programs and increase the amount of food we are distributing, it has all been possible because of the immense support and network we have within our Franklin County community. As we move forward in 2021, all three of our meal sites are distributing hot meals and additional staples, our Orange Food Pantry is again accessible as a COVID-safe walk-in facility serving more people. The GCC Food Pantry is not open while the campus has remote classes but staff there continue to provide community referrals for their students.

During the COVID pandemic, hunger has never been more visible and as a result FCCMP is more visible. The community has seen us, seen what we are doing and joined us in the call to alleviate hunger.

Rachel Berggren is the executive director of the Franklin County Community Meals Program; Andrea Leibson is the retired former executive director; and Marian Boyd is the board president.


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