Westhampton Food Bank seeks community support as need persists

  • The Westhampton Congregational Church houses the food bank open 4 days a week. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Westhampton Congregational Church houses the food bank open 4 days a week. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Wayne, the outreach coordinator with the Westhampton Food Bank in the Westhampton Congregational Church, brings supplies and opens the doors on Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Wayne, the outreach coordinator with the Westhampton Food Bank in the Westhampton Congregational Church, stocks the fridge with items on Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Wayne, the outreach coordinator with the Westhampton Food Bank in the Westhampton Congregational Church, stocks the fridge with items on Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Wayne, the outreach coordinator with the Westhampton Food Bank in the Westhampton Congregational Church, stocks the fridge with items on Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris Wayne, the outreach coordinator with the Westhampton Food Bank in the Westhampton Congregational Church, stocks the fridge with items on Wednesday evening. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2022 8:24:17 PM
Modified: 1/13/2022 8:23:24 PM

WESTHAMPTON — What started as a community’s response to supply chain shortages, financial challenges and a means for neighbors to help neighbors avoid going into grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a much larger issue of food insecurity. And now, community volunteers are putting out an appeal for support of the Westhampton Food Bank.

In the spring of 2020, a food bank sprung up in the crèche on the lawn of the Westhampton Congregational United Church of Christ. From toilet paper to sourdough bread starters, wherever there was a need, the crèche served as a connecting place to share, said Pat Miller, a lifelong Westhampton resident who volunteers with the food bank.

“It quickly became a full community event,” Miller said.

In September, some uninvited guests — bears — tore apart the self-serve goodwill site and the food bank was moved into the church’s kitchen.

As COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and the church reopened its doors to in-person worship services, volunteers associated with the food bank took a moment to evaluate the status of the pantry, which was taking up the church’s kitchen, said Chris Wayne, food bank coordinator and member of the church’s outreach committee.

“What we were finding is that even though COVID-19 restrictions were being lifted and everything was going back to normal (this was pre-omicron), we were actually seeing an increase in usage of the food bank rather than a reduction,” Wayne said.

“There was a real need for a food bank in our area and being in such close range to the hilltowns, we’re kind of in a food desert area where there isn’t close access always, so the idea was to set up a permanent location.”

The challenges associated with the pandemic, coupled with increased awareness of the food bank and inflationary pressure, all played a part in driving usage up due to food insecurity within Westhampton and its surrounding hilltown communities, Wayne said. So he and other volunteers sought out assistance through Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES ) Act funding to create a permanent space for the Westhampton Food Bank and were able to secure a new refrigerator, shelving to outfit an entire room and funding to purchase food to set up a permanent food pantry location on the lower floor of the church. Roughly 30 volunteers are donating their time toward this effort, according to Wayne.

Compiling detailed data has proven to be a bit challenging though, he said. While volunteers have requested that patrons log their visits, it is estimated that only about half do. The amount of food donated has proven a bit challenging as well, because items can be dropped off when the food bank is open and could be picked up that same day.

Also, unlike other food banks in the area, the Westhampton food pantry is anonymous. Registration and documentation are not required. Once a volunteer opens the door, inspects items, stocks the shelves, the lights are on for those would-be recipients and no one will be there to see who is utilizing the resource.

“As a religious organization, we felt it was vital to make the food bank anonymous and open to all in need. Our goal is to eliminate barriers to access and serve those that need help. We didn’t want to hinder access to those in need. If you need food, you’re welcome to stock up,” said Wayne.

“The reality is, if you’re hungry and you needed food, would you really want to go through a bunch of loopholes to get food?”

Wayne did note that while it may be easier for food banks to receive funding with more detailed documentation, volunteers felt it was important to provide more access to food. He’s also received questions from some about potential abuse of the site, but he offers reassurance that the Westhampton community and beyond have been very considerate of their neighbors.

Miller agrees, adding that the pantry has yet to be “wiped out.”

“Yes, we have people that come from out of town. But hungry is hungry. We don’t worry about who uses it,” she said. “People are cognizant of other people’s needs.”

While the scope of usage is hard to come by, Wayne said that during 2021, $7,130.27 was spent to stock the food bank when there were shortages.

Considering community involvement, he estimates that somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 worth of food and sanitary supplies were distributed during the year. There were 211 logged visits to the food bank from June to the end of 2021.

Outside of donations, volunteers also needed to purchase an average of $850 worth of food per month to keep the pantry stocked.

With such positive and grateful feedback from those utilizing the food bank, Wayne said it’s hard not to question why the community didn’t see the need sooner.

Recently, members of the church’s outreach committee issued a letter to the town’s Select Board asking for additional financial support to continue funding the pantry.

“A lot of the difficulties people face are hidden and you don’t necessarily see them. And realistically, the need’s not going to go away. The Westhampton Food Bank is serving a vital need,” Wayne said. “Food insecurity is something that no one should have to be concerned about.”

The Westhampton Food Bank is open Monday and Wednesday, from 5 to 7 p.m., Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For those with questions or a request regarding the food pantry, call the church at 413-527-4204 or email westhamptonchurchucc@comcast.net.

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

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