In 1987, several students from the College collaborated with local clergy to serve lunch twice a week to those in need in North Adams, Mass. Now, nearly 30 years later, the Berkshire Food Project (BFP) is an invaluable resource for a hot lunch every day for many people in North Adams and Williamstown.
The Project is housed in the First Congregational Church in North Adams and headed by Executive Director Valerie Schwartz. It runs daily with the help of volunteers, some of whom come from the College.
In the early days of the Project, it received some of its initial funding from a “meatless meals” program through Dining Services.
“Students would forgo meat [once a month] and Dining Services would credit the value to the BFP, sending a check every month,” President of the Berkshire Food Project and Professor of Political Science James Mahon said.
In 2004, Dining Services discontinued this because they found themselves “with too many student organizations trying to use the same pot of money,” Mahon explained.
Additionally, the BFP had grown so much that it outgrew this source of funding, which “was only a few thousand dollars per year, and the BFP annual cash budget was about $65,000. Now it’s over twice that,” Mahon said.
Assistant Director of Regional and At-Risk Education for the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) Tracey Finnegan explained some of the logistics of the program. Their food comes from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and donations from Walmart and Stop and Shop and the Project buys the rest. To raise money for the Project, they have fundraisers throught the year. One of these BFP fundraisers is the annual Empty Bowl event.
Taking place at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown in April, everyone who participates pays a fee and receives a bowl that has been donated by a local potter.
“Then there are people who come from all over the community who cook soups, and you can try a million different kinds of soup,” Finnegan said. “It’s meant to remind people of hunger and how prevalent hunger is and how important it is to be aware and address it. It’s a very symbolic event.”
Empty Bowl raises money and awareness for the Project while allowing people to come together as a community and enjoy some good food made by members of the community.
The number of people served every day at the BFP varies, from 75 people to “more in the dead of winter,” Finnegan said. Most of these people are on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and “at different times of the month when SNAP money starts to run out, they’ll start going to the BFP,” so there is an increase in clients served towards the end of the month, Finnegan said.
The BFP serves them a hot lunch every day, and there are other local, small programs in different churches that serve breakfast for those in need a meal.
The men, women and children who come to the BFP are just looking for a hot meal and a place where they can feel good. When the program first started, volunteers building relationships with the men and women was a big part of the organization’s mission. Today, the students and volunteers who come in “sit and talk with their clients. The conversation at least gives their dignity back,” Finnegan said.
“A very important part of [volunteering] is sitting there and saying, ‘Hey, you’re important, let’s talk.’ The people love having the conversations.”
The BFP thus becomes more than just a place to get a free meal – it becomes a place where people can feel comfortable and worthy again.
The Project is very volunteer-based, and students from the College are welcome to volunteer any day of the week. Volunteers get to the Berkshire Food Project around noon, and although the cooking itself is usually done by the time they arrive, they serve, clean and interact with the clients.
“Sometimes I help serve, sometimes I help plate food in the kitchen and sometimes I help prep the meal for the following day,” Hannah Weinstein ’18, a regular volunteer at the Project since the fall, said.
“They always need help with cleaning so I usually help wipe down the tables, sweep the floor and put away the cleaned dishes.”
No matter what Weinstein does, she feels as though she has an impact whenever she volunteers, and her help is always appreciated, she said.
Finnegan stressed that CLiA is available to help students who want to volunteer.
“We can arrange to have vans [take students from the College to North Adams] because this is something we really want to happen,” she said. “We will do whatever is possible to help students get there.”
Mahon was also enthusiastic about potential volunteers. “We’d love to have your participation. It’s a great thing,” he said. “We’d also love to have student board members – we used to have at least one, often two or three. We haven’t had any in a while.”
Weinstein was also positive about her experiences volunteering. “Everyone at BFP is welcoming and they seem to enjoy and appreciate new faces,” she said. “It’s a great way to do something that is hands-on and meet people who live in North Adams and Williamstown.”
The Berkshire Food Project holds an important place in the North Adams and Berkshire communities. Currently, it is “building on a momentum that has already begun, and it would be great to see more of this collaboration among students and reaching out,” Finnegan said. “There was a history to it but now there’s a lull, so there’s certainly a big need to pick it up and make it thrive again.”
Weinstein added that she volunteers at the Project “because it gives me the opportunity to contribute to a cause that is working to help people in the surrounding area. At Williams, it is easy to bury yourself in books, focus on your own pursuits and forget to look up and see the rest of the community. I go because I enjoy talking with the other volunteers and the people we serve.”
Taking the time to interact with the community can positively impact a student’s experience at the College.
Everyone involved with the Berkshire Food Project understands how vital it is to the community and how important it is to give people not only food, but also companionship and a feeling of importance. They would love to share these experiences with more volunteers. Finnegan encourages students who want to volunteer to contact her, Schwartz or Weinstein.