Valley food pantries increase offerings amid growing need

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

“It makes it difficult for us,” Holbrook said of the impact of inflation, standing outside the Northampton Survival Center at 265 Prospect St. this week, expecting to have a cart full of milk, chicken, produce and other products.

Getting some of her family’s needs met in the food pantry, she said, will help save money for other essential items.

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

In a car waiting on the nearby bus line, Laura Snelling of Williamsburg and her son, Benjamin, waited to pick up canned food, baked goods, produce and toiletries.

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

Your son receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including the federal COVID-19-era subsidy that provides at least an extra $95 a month to individuals and families, but like others, he may have seen the ‘last payment of the bonus on March 2.

“That’s going to affect us,” Snelling said. “It’s a broken system that we have right now, and as a nurse, I’ve seen it get worse.”

Governor Maura Healey is proposing to use a supplemental state budget allocation so that the SNAP supplemental benefit can continue in some form. The Transition Assistance Department’s website explains that Healey’s plan, if approved by the Legislature, would provide a portion of those additional SNAP benefits for the next three months, mitigating the impact of ending the temporary program federal

The municipal agency strengthens services

Northampton Survival Center executive director Heidi Nortonsmith said she sees first-hand the anxiety around food security and feels for those affected by it.

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

Downtown Northampton is doing its part. “We have increased our services in many ways since the start of the pandemic,” Nortonsmith said.

One of them is the hiring of a new distribution and care coordinator who starts next week to serve those in need of food in 10 communities in the area.

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

The center of Amherst expands the offer

At the Amherst Survival Center, plans were to begin a second day of extended hours for the food pantry, allowing people to shop until the early hours of the evening on Tuesdays, like Thursdays, a response to the growing demand that began during the pandemic and has continued as food costs have risen.

The center announced that on-site shopping at the center at 138 Sunderland Road will take place on Tuesdays from noon to 7pm, adding four hours to the opening hours. The pantry is also open on Mondays and Fridays from 12:00pm to 3:00pm, while curbside pickup is on Mondays and Fridays from 3:00pm to 4:00pm and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:00pm to 7:30pm. on the third Saturday of each month also from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., while delivery times vary by location.

“By adding a second night, 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 communicated

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 approximately 2,500 people accessing the food pantry, 60% of whom shopped on-site, and the remaining nearly 1,000 people had groceries delivered to their homes.

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

“Now is a difficult time for many of our neighbors,” said Survival Center Executive Director Lev BenEzra. “These extended hours will make it easier for our community to access the healthy food they need.”

The Food Bank is again looking for 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 food sites in the four westernmost counties had 3 percent more participants than in 2021, Executive Director Andrew Morehouse said. He expects the numbers for the first quarter of 2023 to rise similarly, coinciding with growing food insecurity.

Inflation and the loss of additional SNAP benefits are taking their toll, he said, and both are occurring against the backdrop of supply challenges, where food banks across the country are experiencing delays and cancellations of supplies federal food Morehouse said part of the problem is that the federal government competes with private industry for food from food manufacturers.

The Food Bank relies on the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, Morehouse said, and when that 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 accepting cans and boxes of non-perishable food.

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

The Food Bank is also asking for an extra helping 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 in Chicopee opens in September, there will be additional space to store the product .

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

Although he no longer receives SNAP benefits, Lance Sax of Northampton, who works at the city’s Bluebonnet Diner, said he is shocked by how expensive the food is. “It really hurts me, the prices,” Sax said.

She now depends on the Northampton Survival Center, making many meals with dry beans and casseroles. But Sax said she hopes steady employment will give her the means to buy all her food.

“I want to do this in the next few weeks, before I start making money,” Sax said.