NORTH ADAMS — Economists and politicians have talked about a steady growth in financial security around the country, but if everything is going so well, Berkshire Food Project Manager Valerie Schwarz wonders why there's been an increase locally in the number of people coming in for help.
"I've seen an increase in the number of young people coming in — many of them don't know where their next meal is going to come from," Schwarz said Tuesday afternoon. "I believe the increase in need is directly related to the increase in the cost of living. The incidence of 'food insecurity' is higher than we've ever seen before. Food stamps are not getting these people through the month. They're relying on access to local food pantries more and more. Unfortunately, I have learned that access to one of the pantries is restricted to once every 60 days because of the demand."
To help combat the growing incidence of "food insecurity," Schwarz is expanding the Food Project's free lunch offerings to five days a week and has hired a kitchen manager, freeing up her time to help register people for food stamps through an online program.
"We had hired Pamela LaChapelle to handle the food stamp outreach program, and I knew she was leaving at the end of August to return to school," Schwarz said this week. "I loved the outreach and didn't want to give it up, so I went to my board of directors and told them that I wanted to hire a kitchen manager. I said that I wanted to stay with the administrative duties but at the same time expand the program to five days a week and venture out into the community. We're looking into starting a meal in Adams as well."
While Schwarz is waiting for permission from First Congregational Church to use its dining hall on the two additional days — Tuesday and Wednesday — she said the program is providing "to-go" bag lunches on those days.
"When we receive the church's OK, we'll begin serving a lighter meal of hot soup and sandwiches on those days," she said. "On the three other days — Monday, Thursday and Friday — we'll still serve the heavier meals, which are usually three-course meals with a salad, a main meal and dessert."
Schwarz's expanded duties are pulling her out of the Food Project's kitchen after 14 years of preparing meals for program participants.
"People keep saying they're so sad to see me go," she said. "I'm not leaving. I'm just not in the kitchen anymore."
In her place, Adams native Elizabeth "Betty" LeSage has taken over the kitchen duties. Prior to joining the Food Project, LeSage was head chef in the Stone dining hall at Jacob's Pillow in Becket for two seasons.
"I planned all the menus, cooked and supervised the staff," she said. "I love the Pillow, but it was an hour down and an hour back in addition to nine-hour days. Now I've been able to spend more time with my family."
Schwarz said LeSage's presence has freed up her time to help register individuals and families with the food stamp program.
"A lot of the people who come here are living on limited incomes," she said. "Most of them receive Social Security. I have a group, mostly men, who believe that the $10 a month they get in food stamps is not worth the extreme effort they have to go through to register for the benefits. The way I look at it, $10 is a jug of juice, a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. It might not be much, but it's something, and I want them to keep those benefits."
She said the food stamp program underwent guideline changes recently, making more people eligible for the program.
"People who might not have qualified before might be eligible now," she said.
The Food Project serves between 80 and 100 people a day, with numbers dipping to 50 to 60 people a day at the beginning of the month.
"That's the time when people receive their Social Security checks and food stamp benefits," Schwarz said. "On Monday (Oct. 1), we had 60 people, but on Friday (Sept. 28), We had 103 people. We want to encourage people to come at the beginning of the month. We can help them stretch their food budget."
She said one of the unique things about the program is its focus on treating all of its participants with dignity.
"We serve them in a restaurant-style manner," she said. "Everyone is served on china plates. It's not just about getting the stomach filled but about filling their souls as well. So many friendships have formed in this dining hall. It's a great place to come and have a good meal and not be lonely."
Meals are provided free. Sit-down meals are served Monday, Thursday and Fridays in the dining hall of First Congregational Church on Main Street at noon. Participants are asked to arrive at 11:30. "To-go" meals are distributed on Tuesday and Wednesday from the church's kitchen. For more information, call Schwarz at 413-664-7378.