The Berkshire Food Project, housed in First Congregational Church, normally feeds nearly 100 people lunch weekdays. The COVID-19 crisis has it preparing meals and food for pickup for twice the numbers three days a week.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — When the Berkshire Food Project recently needed a little help to shore up its volunteer pool, the answer from the community was loud and clear.
"This is the most incredible community to do this kind of work in ever," Executive Director Kim McMann said on Tuesday. "Every day we are astounded by the support we have in this community. It's amazing when people think of us and how much they support us.
"It's been overwhelming but so typical of this community."
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been pretty overwhelming for vulnerable populations like those served by the Berkshire Food Project. The non-profit is serving twice as many meals per day than it did before the public health crisis produced an economic crisis.
"We are so far beyond our capacity right now," McMann said. "I remember in January I told our board we're at capacity and can't do everything safely if we do any more meals. We're now double that.
"But we're not serving everything hot."
Instead, the project, which used to seat up to 88 people at a time in its dining room has shifted to an entirely to-go model of prepackaged meals.
Those meals are distributed Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the project's headquarters at the First Congregational Church. Recipients get two meals each day, so the project is actually producing one more meal per week per recipient than it did when it served lunch five days a week in its dining room.
McMann said that even as the state begins to open up and allow indoor table service, it won't make sense for the project to serve meals hot meals on site in a socially-distant manner.
"In the beginning [of the pandemic], we were down to three people per table instead of eight per table, and it wasn't working," she said. "And now we're doing twice as many meals. … Quite honestly, say the governor said you can open at 50 percent capacity, then we'd have to be open four times as long for what we're serving right now."
And there always is a chance that the commonwealth could change the rules for kitchens like the Berkshire Food Project after it does start allowing some table service. McMann said she would rather stay with the to-go model as long as necessary than have to switch back and forth if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases; it's in the best interest of recipients to have a predictable way to get a nutritious meal.
"We're the stable thing in their life," she said. "They can count on us to be stable, to be here. We don't want to make a bunch of changes -- have the dining room open one week and then go back to takeout the next week."
Of course, going to a takeout model has added some new expenses, principally containers that the Berkshire Food Project never has had to use before.
"We even are spending money on computer ink and labels because every takeout container has to be labeled," she pointed out.
Then, of course, there is the added cost of food with which to create those additional meals each day. In addition to needing more volume of food, one of the project's traditional sources, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, has had problems keeping its shelves stocked, McMann said.
So far, the project has been able to pay its bills thanks to the support of its non-profit partners.
"We've been fortunate because we've gotten some grants," McMann said. "The Berkshire Taconic Foundation, Berkshire United Way, Northern Berkshire United Way and Williamstown Community Chest set up their COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund almost right away.
"We're spending more money, but so far we've got it to spend. [The grants] will get us through the summer."
The Berkshire Food Project's volunteer labor force took a hit because some of the volunteers have been reluctant to put themselves in a group setting during the pandemic, and those who remained on board have been working harder than ever to keep up with the increased demand.
On Monday, an appeal from the chair of the Berkshire Food Project's board of directors began circulating on Facebook. By Tuesday morning, McMann's email inbox was filled with potential volunteers.
"[Jim Mahon] is on the faculty at Williams," she said. "He posted it on a Williams chat board, and it spread like crazy. There's a meditation group, and someone sent it to all their members. There's another group that plays cards, and they circulated it. And it spread from our Facebook page as well."
Taking a break from cooking the meals that will go out on Wednesday, McMann said not only are the project's immediate volunteer needs covered but also that she is building up a list of people to tap if the need arises again.
"We have filled pretty much all of the slots at this point," she said. "I spent three and a half hours this morning responding to all the people volunteering."
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A tropical storm heading north up the Atlantic coast could bring more rain to the Berkshires over the weekend.
Dubbed "Fay," the storm began as a tropical depression off the coast of North Carolina midweek and formed late Thursday.
According to Accuweather, the storm has sustained winds of 60 mph and could bring 2 to 4 inches of rain over Western Mass and Southern Vermont from late Friday through Saturday morning.
"Fay will make landfall along the New Jersey coast during Friday afternoon," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Lead Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said. "Fay will be a mostly heavy rain producer but could still bring wind gusts of 50-60 mph along coastal areas of eastern Long Island and over southern coastal areas of New England."