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South Hadley food drive donations, volunteers hit record numbers

“But it’s a good kind of tired,” she said, pausing from sorting more than 5,000 bags of food donated Monday during the third townwide Bag the Community collection held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

About 300 volunteers turned out to help collect, sort and store the donations for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food pantry.

Isakson, who is the food pantry director, said town residents donated “a mind-blowing amount of food” to this year’s drive.

The town’s food charity began in 2010 as an interfaith outreach effort by United Methodist Church on Carew Street.

It formalized as Neighbors Helping Neighbors and now provides a place where clients have access to food and social services that address the causes of food insecurity. Isakson said the pantry serves 154 local families a month. “And the number steadily goes up,” she said.

This year, volunteers fanned out over several major streets in South Hadley, distributing 5,000 grocery bags, the largest amount so far. Last year, 3,500 bags were distributed, and 2,500 were distributed in 2011.

Isakson said residents have embraced the food pantry effort because “it’s so direct. It’s tangible. You know your food is going to your neighbors, people who need it.”

Many food pantry clients turned out Monday to South Hadley High School to help with sorting and packing the donations for the pantry, she said.

“They want to give back to the community, too,” Isakson said.

This year, the selection of donated food has improved, said Debbie Carpenter, procurement director for the food pantry, who works with the Western Massachusetts Food Bank in acquiring fresh produce and protein for Neighbors Helping Neighbors.

Many donors brought in more than one full grocery bag of food, including some who brought boxes of foil-packet tuna fish, a popular pantry item.

“Our clients are going to be thrilled with the selection,” she said.

As in prior years, students at South Hadley High spent December collecting food for the drive under the direction of Assistant Principal Ted McCarthy. New this year was a contingent of students and resources donated by Mount Holyoke College.

Caitlin Kidder, a community-based learning program fellow and senior at the college, said she coordinated Mount Holyoke’s food pantry efforts, which included use of three MHC vehicles to collect food and about 80 student volunteers. The college also donated 100 pizzas to the high school to feed volunteers, she said.

“It’s exceeded all of my expectations,” Kidder said, estimating that Monday’s effort will stock the food pantry for five months.

The Mount Holyoke’s contributions “were fabulous,” Isakson said. “We really would have struggled without them.”

“It’s incredible to me how much the food drive has progressed,” said Tanya Kopec, a member of Count Me In, a community service organization. She is also a food pantry volunteer and member of the South Hadley Youth Commission.

“We definitely learned a lot last year,” said Diane Laroche, a food pantry board member. “It definitely takes a lot of hands to make this happen.”

Aiding in the effort was James Reidy, superintendent of the Department of Public Works, who coordinated food-collection routes.

Organizer Susan Brouillette said this year’s drive also had “a record number of volunteers.”

“We had senior citizens, members of various community groups, even little kids,” she said. “It was great. And there was a job for everybody.”

“It’s all of South Hadley coming together to take care of its own,” Guarnera said. “These are good people, doing good things. It’s so heartwarming.”

Etta Walsh can be reached at ewalsh.gazette@gmail.com.

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