Panel talks resources, solutions for combating food insecurity

  • Area legislators and community partners were part of a virtual panel discussion this week to share information about resources available for families and individuals facing hunger and to look at policies and solutions that can solve hunger throughout the state. SCREENSHOT

  • Amherst Survival Center volunteers Hannah Hart, right, and her children Willa, left, and Geir, all of Amherst, sort produce, bread and other food items that just arrived by van outside the North Amherst facility on Thursday morning, April 2, 2020. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/10/2021 11:17:48 AM

Legislators and community partners representing western Massachusetts participated in a virtual panel discussion this week to share information about resources for families and individuals facing hunger, and to examine policies and solutions that can solve hunger throughout the state.

The discussion was recorded and livestreamed on the Facebook page of the Hampshire-Franklin Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and was moderated by Laura Sylvester, public policy manager at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. She mentioned that typically 10% (or 100,000 people) of western Massachusetts’ four counties are defined as food insecure, though that number has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Carleen Basler, program director for the Amherst Survival Center, explained food insecurity means having to choose between food and other necessities.

“Maybe some of those choices don’t have to be made so often,” she said.

Basler said the Amherst Survival Center, which is open to everyone, brings people together and connects them “with things they need the most.” It also operates a food pantry that caters to 13 towns. Basler mentioned people can register online at, by calling 413-549-3968 or by visiting the center at 138 Sunderland Road in Amherst.

Kirsten Levitt, executive director and executive chef at Stone Soup Cafe at All Souls Church in downtown Greenfield, spoke next, explaining how the public health crisis has affected the pay-what-you-can hot luncheon.

“The cafe has totally transformed because of COVID,” Levitt said. “Pre-COVID, we offered a lot of different things within our program. We had a ‘counsel circle’ afterward, we had a volunteer-training program. Everything was encapsulated in our building, and the minute the restrictions came on, we moved into COVID protocols, where we all masked up. And we have volunteers still, but the in-house dining and all those other things disappeared.

“What appeared, though, was a fantastic RSVP system for people to pick up their meals curbside or have them delivered,” she continued. “Of course, we always make extra food for people who haven’t RSVP’d and are coming to pick up at curbside. They know our location. We’re about to have our ninth anniversary this coming Saturday and, so, we’re a known entity in Greenfield and a pretty important link in the emergency food supply.”

Levitt said Stone Soup Cafe served 200 meals each week before the pandemic. That figure has blossomed to nearly 500 meals per week, at least 250 of which are delivered. Levitt said the cafe has expanded its reach to more than half the towns in Franklin County and, in April 2020, opened an emergency food pantry.

“Food is a basic human right, and we’re here to share food freely,” she said.

Levitt said meals are served between noon and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and people can access the emergency food pantry at the same time they’re picking up a meal.

Legislators sitting in on the discussion included state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Reps. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and Jake Oliveira, D-Ludlow.

Comerford mentioned a farm omnibus bill she and Blais worked on “to strengthen the ability of farmers to stay farming, which we see as a very important part of the ... food and nutrition equation in the commonwealth.” Comerford also mentioned the Health Soils Act, which passed last year. She explained it incentivizes low- and no-till farming, which is better for the environment and is proven to strengthen crop yield.

Domb mentioned the often overlooked food insecurity on college campuses. This, she said, fuels some of the back-breaking debt students accrue to fund their education. She said assuring nutrition for college students should be viewed as essential as it is for children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

To that end, Domb has sponsored legislation to establish a hunger-free campus initiative to address college student food insecurity and hunger on public higher education campuses.

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