Valley food pantries ramp up offerings amid growing need

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-16-2023 5:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Food items Toni Holbrook remembers buying for $2 a year or so ago have more than doubled in price, meaning a skyrocketing grocery bill for his growing family, which includes a newborn baby.

“It makes it hard on us,” Holbrook said of the impact of inflation, while standing outside the Northampton Survival Center at 265 Prospect St. this week, waiting to have a cart filled with milk, chicken, produce and other goods.

Getting some of his family’s needs fulfilled at the food pantry, he said, will help save money for other essentials.

“It’s getting harder and harder, but we only come here when we need to,” Holbrook said, adding that he doesn’t want to deprive others who rely on the service.

In a car waiting in the drive-thru line nearby, Laura Snelling of Williamsburg and her son, Benjamin, were hoping to pick up canned food, baked goods, produce and hygiene products.

“Gas and food prices have been hitting us hard,” said Snelling, a registered nurse who came to the area after evacuating from the California wildfires two years ago. “It’s horrible, but this really helps if you need that extra push.”

Her son receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, including the federal COVID-era bonus that provides at least $95 extra per month to individuals and families, but, like others, he may have seen that last bonus payment on March 2.

“That will affect us,” Snelling said. “It’s a broken system we have right now, and as a nurse I have witnessed it worsening,”

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Gov. Maura Healey is proposing to use a supplemental state budget appropriation so that the added SNAP benefit can continue in some form. The Department of Transitional Assistance’s website explains that Healey’s plan, if enacted by the Legislature, will provide a portion of those extra SNAP benefits for the next three months, easing the impact of the federal temporary program concluding.

City agency beefing up services

Northampton Survival Center Executive Director Heidi Nortonsmith said she sees firsthand the anxiety around food security and feels for the people affected by it.

“The need is still high for sure,” Nortonsmith said. “Food on the plate, and where it is coming from, is a real tangible question for many people.”

The Northampton center is doing its part. “We have ramped up our services in so many ways since the start of the pandemic,” Nortonsmith said.

One of these is the hiring of a new delivery and care coordinator who begins next week to assist those who need food in 10 area communities.

“The delivery component is being strengthened,” Nortonsmith said “We’re making sure to meet the high needs and continually looking for ways to improve and expand what we do.”

Amherst center expanding offerings

At the Amherst Survival Center, a second day of extended hours for the food pantry was set to begin, allowing people to do their shopping into the early evening on Tuesdays, as on Thursdays, a response to the growing demand that began during the pandemic and has continued as food costs have risen.

The center announced that onsite shopping at the 138 Sunderland Road center will run from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, adding four hours to the schedule. The pantry is also open Mondays and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m., while curbside pickup happens Mondays and Fridays from 3 to 4 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The pantry has both in-person shopping and curbside pickup on the third Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to noon as well, while delivery schedules vary based on location.

“By adding a second evening, we will be able to serve more people, reduce wait times for shoppers, and increase access for people who work during the day,” Carleen Basler, the center’s program director, said in a statement.

In February, the Amherst Survival Center provided more than 106,000 meals, both prepared and through groceries, to more than 3,200 area residents. This included roughly 2,500 people who accessed the food pantry, about 60% of whom shopped on site, with the remaining nearly 1,000 people getting groceries delivered to their homes.

The food pantry is now serving 26% more households each month than the average during the peak of the pandemic, and 62% more households monthly than before COVID.

“Right now is a challenging time for a lot of our neighbors,” said Survival Center Executive Director Lev BenEzra. “These expanded hours will make it easier for our community to access the healthy food they need.”

Food Bank again seeks local donations

As a key player in the regional food distribution network, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts notices when demand increases. In November and December, the 160 food pantries and meal sites in the four westernmost counties had 3% more participants than in 2021, said Executive Director Andrew Morehouse. He expects the numbers for the first quarter of 2023 to rise similarly, coinciding with growing food insecurity.

Inflation and the loss of added SNAP benefits are taking a toll, he said, and both are happening against the backdrop of supply challenges, where food banks across the country are experiencing delays and the cancellation of federal food supplies. Morehouse said part of the issue is federal government competing with private industry for food from food manufacturers.

The Food Bank depends on the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, Morehouse said, and when this supply chain is disrupted, there are additional strains. The Food Bank has countered a decline in food from the federal program by seeking donations from local retailers, which were suspended during the pandemic but have resumed, with acceptance of cans and boxes of nonperishable food.

“We’re turning the spigot back on for supermarkets and using more institutional money to buy more food,” Morehouse said.

The Food Bank is also advocating for more of a hand from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supports the state’s four regional food banks. 

“We’re doing everything we can to respond to the growing demand for food assistance,” Morehouse said, adding that when the operation’s new headquarters opens in Chicopee in September, there will be extra space to store product.

In addition to more people coming to the Amherst Survival Center pantry, shoppers can now return a second time each month for Fresh Boost, launched last fall, which provides a second offering of fresh produce, milk, eggs and cheese. Combined, shoppers can take home two weeks of groceries each month for their households.

Though no longer receiving SNAP benefits, Lance Sax of Northampton, who works at the Bluebonnet Diner in the city, said he is flabbergasted by how expensive food is. “It really cracks me up, the prices,” Sax said.

He depends on the Northampton Survival Center for now, making many meals with dried beans and in the crockpot. But Sax said he hopes steady employment may give him the means to buy all his own food.

“I want do this for the next couple of weeks, before I begin making money,” Sax said.

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