The shift in the northern Berkshires from an industrial to a service economy has rendered hundreds of local residents unemployed, underemployed, or at best, leashed to minimum-wage jobs with neither benefits nor security. In this devastating situation, the inability of a growing segment of our fellow citizens to provide their families with nutritious meals, and the actual incidence of hunger, have become alarming.
In the autumn of 1986, a group of Williams College students, with the support of several local residents and, above all, the encouragement of Rev. Elizabeth Wheeler (then minister of the First Congregational Church of North Adams) decided to create a program to offer regular free lunches in North Adams. The Berkshire Food Project began its operations on a twice-weekly basis in January 1987. Its initial funds came from a "meatless meal" program at Williams College. For each student who was willing to forgo meat once a month, the College Dining Services donated (and still does donate) one dollar to the BFP.
Apart from providing the Project with roughly $600 every month of the school year, this mode of fundraising has the added advantage of making students aware of the serious needs of the community around them. And indeed, this linkage between usually unconnected and distant parts of local society was from the very beginning a key objective of the BFP. The BFP Board of Directors has always included a member or members of our "clientele," just as non-client Board members are encouraged to support the Project with their physical labor at mealtime. All volunteers—as well as visiting business people—are expected to share lunch and conversation with our clients. This interaction among clients, volunteers, church staff, community residents, and Board members is written prominently into the BFP mission statement. The Project aspires to be a community forum where people of widely different ages and circumstances can meet one another in an atmosphere of friendliness and mutual respect.
Since the fall of 1987, the BFP has gone to providing three meals each week to now serving a free, nutritionally balanced, expertly prepared meal each Monday-Friday.
In 2011 alone, we served over 27,000 meals which included emergency food, and meals to take home.
But here the word "serve" is used advisedly, for the BFP is emphatic in its determination not to be a soup kitchen. We have no "chow line" where globs of unidentifiable stuff are plunked onto paper plates. Each client is served at the table by a student or community volunteer and the food is served on attractive chinaware. Some of our food is supplied through in-kind donations from businesses and organizations; shares in the cooperative, organic Caretaker Farm, in Williamstown; and the Western Massachusetts Food Bank. The remainder is purchased from wholesale stores, retail providers and local supermarkets.
The Berkshire Food Project seeks to alleviate hunger, food insecurity, and social isolation by serving healthy and dignified noontime meals every weekday, by providing education in making good nutritional choices and by helping people access available food resources.
We also seek to alleviate a need that has grown even in periods of economic expansion nationally. We seek to provide a forum to facilitate unselfconscious interaction among disparate segments of the population. And lastly, to provide information helpful to our consumers. We invite relevant social service agencies and experts to address lunch gatherings on such varied issues as tenants' rights, voting registration, programs for the elderly, public assistance, child and health care, Social Security, and nutrition. With the same goals in mind, in recent years we have also facilitated group meetings of teen and at-risk parents, usually in conjunction with local social workers, through the PHOP (People Helping Other People) program. Currently these activities involve hands-on nutrition and cooking classes in the Project's kitchen, for young parents referred by Healthy Families, a local counseling and aid center.
We arose in response to dire needs. Nothing would make us happier than to close down the BFP because there was no longer a need for it. Alas, this is not the case. If current indications are any guide, we must expect ours to be an ongoing project.