Easthampton leaders hitting up eateries for excess food

  • Easthampton At-large City Councilor Peg Conniff, center, shakes hands with City Clerk Barbara LaBombard after being sworn-in with other Easthampton officials including At-large Councilor William Lynch IV, left, and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, right, at city hall on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. A short while later Conniff's fellow councilors elected her council president for the new term.

Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2020 10:11:35 AM
Modified: 4/3/2020 10:11:22 AM

EASTHAMPTON — A coalition of people, including several city councilors, is working to ensure that food in the city doesn’t gets thrown away unnecessarily as the community faces the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our sole purpose is to make sure that food doesn’t go wasted,” said City Council President Peg Conniff. “We’re all just trying to help.”

Conniff said she and Easthampton resident and Treehouse Foundation board member Mary Gomez met with Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, who pitched the idea of getting food that would be thrown away by businesses into the hands of those in need.

Conniff and Gomez then took the lead on the initiative, and City Councilors Owen Zaret, Dan Rist, J.P. Kwiecinski and Lindsey Rothschild became involved as well. Board of Health Chair Maggie Hebert and health agent Bri Eichstaedt were also looped into the effort, as was Easthampton Community Center Executive Director Robin Bialecki.

Gomez has a lot of contacts with families in the city, Conniff said.

“Whoever needs me, I try my best to help them,” Gomez said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

The first goal, Gomez said, is to get in touch with every business.

“We have a very good team on that right now,” she said.

Conniff said an email requesting the donation of surplus food was sent to all the licensed food and retail establishments in the city March 22, and that Zaret and Rothschild have been calling establishments since March 23. Because of the large number of such businesses in the city, Conniff said calls have been limited to those on Main, Cottage and Union streets.

“We’re just a small group going restaurant to restaurant,” Conniff said.

On March 25, Conniff said the effort yielded its first donations. Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters gave 30 gallons of milk it wasn’t able to use, while Mission Cantina donated burritos made with fixings left over after the day’s food service. Gomez then found families for this food to go to.

Other donations are in the works, Conniff said, with Mill 180 saying it could get them fresh greens, and Vibesman’s Jerk Shack offering frozen chicken wings. The effort is proceeding somewhat slowly, she said, so that all food safety practices can be followed.

The campaign isn’t replacing any resources, said Conniff, who praised the efforts of Bialecki, who runs the city’s largest food pantry.

“She’s doing heroic work,” Conniff said.

The food pantry is available for individuals and families to use once a week, open from 9 a.m. to noon and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday and Wednesday. In addition to nonperishables, those using the pantry can get milk, eggs, bread, fruit, vegetables and meat when they do their pickups, which have been moved outdoors in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

About 1,400 families were served by the pantry every week before the pandemic. In the last two weeks, that number has increased by almost 100 new families, Bialecki said.

She noted that the Kid’s Bag program, which normally starts in the summer and provides children with a week’s worth of breakfast, lunch and snacks, started this year when the schools shut down.

Bialecki said people have been generous with monetary donations lately, as well as with donations of food and gift cards.

“It really has been tremendous,” she said.

A number of businesses, such as Big Y and Cumberland Farms, already donate food to the community center. Bialecki praised the efforts of the ad hoc food donation team to reach out to businesses to collect available excess food.

“They’re doing a great job,” Bialecki said. “They’re just contacting everybody.”

Those who wish to donate can contact Conniff mconniff@easthamptonma.gov.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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