Easthampton Community Center on front lines of fight against hunger 

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 01-30-2023 9:20 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Almost every morning, Robin Bialecki is up at 5 a.m. to make her rounds at grocery stores like Big Y and Stop & Shop, salvaging unsellable food items that can be distributed to those in need through the food pantry at the Easthampton Community Center.

In addition to grocery stores, the center also works with area farms like Mountain View Farms, salvaging crops like potatoes and onions. Over the course of the past year, the center’s executive director and the 200 volunteers who donated their time at the center have saved 678,000 pounds of food. “My van is literally going every day,” she said.

Why do they do it? According to Bialecki, the number of people experiencing food insecurity continues to rise. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Easthampton center was serving around 1,000 families. These days, she said the center is serving about 3,500 families from Easthampton and surrounding towns, including 1,300 children.

“In the last year, we distributed 2.2 million pounds of food,” she said. “That includes those who need a little bit of help and aren’t part of our regular program.”

Bialecki spoke about the local landscape of food insecurity at the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition’s virtual “winter retreat” meeting last Thursday. Each year, the coalition delves into topics like food insecurity and uses the discussion to further inform their work, said Healthy Youth Coalition Coordinator Rebecca Edwards.

“Now that I understand what the Easthampton Community Center needs, I can better craft our efforts to make them most useful. I believe that the community we live in is like a web and the more we know about the resources, the more we contribute to those resources, and even the more we utilize those resources, the more we strengthen that web of interconnectedness. A strong community web creates resiliency for the community,” she said. According to a report from then Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, the pandemic has led to a nearly 60% increase in food insecurity in the state, and the percentage of children who don’t have enough to eat has more than doubled.

In December 2020, Healey issued an advisory to food pantries recommending that they no longer ask clients to present photo IDs or social security cards in order to access food. The change in protocols was designed to prevent any barriers to accessing food as the financial hardships were widespread.

“For the past three years, when people show up hungry or in need, we’ve been feeding them — with no qualifications,” said Bialecki. “We do ask if they have Mass Health or if they’re receiving any SNAP benefits. If they aren’t, we encourage or help them apply.”

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Like many nonprofits, funding all of the center’s needs is an ongoing challenge.

The center is a partner agency of the United Way of Hampshire County and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The organization also receives funding from the United States Department of Agriculture through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Salvation Army and donations, said Bialecki.

In the past, the center used to rent the hall out of its building at 12 Clark St. for local meetings and for special events. However, these days, that’s not an option.

“We are literally a food warehouse. Every single level,” she said. “We move 30,000 to 50,000 pounds of food each week.”

Between complications of being in a tight space during the pandemic and the growing need, distribution services moved outdoors to maintain the space inside. Additionally, the center hosts mobile food bank distribution days at locations like Our Lady of the Valley’s parking lot.

Transportation also continues to be a barrier to access. While the need to prove food insecurity has been removed, the ability to get to a distribution site without a car or public transportation remains a challenge.

To help with that, Thursday through Sunday, volunteers also deliver to approximately 200 families each week, according to Bialecki.

As the only National Celiac Association registered pantry in western Massachusetts, Bialecki said she has people coming from as far as towns like Adams in Berkshire County for gluten-free food products.

She also noted that the center has been helping out refugee families from Afghanistan, Haiti and Ukraine, and offers both kosher food products, which are items that Jewish dietary laws allow a person to eat, as well as halal food, which are foods that adhere to Islamic law. In maintaining those products, Bialecki is often traveling to specialty slaughterhouses and shops.

“My children say I do nothing but beg in the streets,” she said. “Do we help everybody? No. But we’re certainly giving it our best try.”

The food pantry is also dealing with rising food prices, like eggs. Last January, purchasing about 400 dozen eggs would cost somewhere around $700, according to Bialecki.

“This week, (buying the same amount), I spent $1,929 for eggs. It’s unbelievable,” she said.

Other services

Aside from food, the center offers a clothing closet and has partnered with Easthampton High School and other social organizations like Parson’s Closet and Angel’s Attic 01027 to help outfit people for jobs or important personal occasions such as a funeral.

Though the center offers many channels of help and assistance to those in need, there are limitations. Bialecki said ideally, she’d like to see a shelter for those who are unhoused or are experiencing homelessness.

“We have long felt that there should be a place where someone could clean up and take a shower. We just don’t have the space,” she said. “We can certainly help people who are looking for jobs and give them clothing for that interview, but sometimes they need to take a shower … If they had a shelter they could go to, something as simple as that could help a person feel better about themselves for a job interview.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>