WESTFIELD-As the Baker-Polito Administration continues to support efforts across the state to address food insecurity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials with the Westfield Food Pantry are hopeful their Sept. 15 grant proposal will also be considered during the next funding cycle to support the purchase of a mobile food pantry/feeding program.
“It’s a very competitive program,” said Rebecca Hart, director, Westfield Food Pantry, noting the Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program is under the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “Our board members continually seek funding sources that can be used in innovative ways to address food insecurity in Westfield.”
Grants are targeted to connect the state’s local food producers and distributors to the families and communities that are currently most underserved by fresh food options.
“One of the barriers in accessing food is transportation,” said Hart, noting the coronavirus pandemic made the issue even more prevalent during the past several months.
“Westfield is so geographically large,” she said. “While we have home delivery now during the pandemic, we know we are still missing families because of the process to enroll.”
Hart said one of the ways she could reach more families would be to expand mobile delivery.
“Our goal is to go into the neighborhoods most in need with set days and times and hand out food as needed,” said Hart. “All of us have been hit hard by COVID-19, with many losing their jobs.”
The estimated cost of the mobile program is $150,000 and $25,000 has been raised to date through grants and private donations.
Hart noted that on average, the Westfield Food Pantry has served 1,200 people a month for the past three to five years.
“Typically on any given month, prior to COVID-19, we would see about 15% of people who were first-time visitors to the food pantry,” said Hart. “Now we are at 60% per month for first-time users.”
While the Westfield Food Pantry continues to partner with North Elm Butcher Block to provide groceries to Westfield residents in need, the program will be winding down.
“The North Elm Butcher Block has assembled 583 pantry bags of food for residents since the program began earlier this year with an additional $1,000 committed for bags,” said Hart. “Bags include deli meat, American cheese, eggs, bread and produce.”
Hart also reminded city residents in need that the Episcopal Church of the Atonement on Court Street has a Little Free Food Pantry on its lawn as well.
“Since COVID-19 we have seen our numbers change to an all-time high of users at the pantry,” said Hart.
Hart met Sept. 17 with state Sen. John C. Velis to bring him up-to-date on the board’s endeavors.
“I can’t say enough about Sen. Velis and his commitment to Westfield,” said Hart, adding, “His opinion is so valuable to us and for our community.”
Velis noted “there is no doubt” that food insecurity is a major issue in Westfield, and it has grown during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Last spring and into the early summer, I spent some time volunteering with the food pantry, where I saw the need for increased food access firsthand,” said Velis in a statement. “I also saw the true compassion and empathy that organizations like the food pantry and their volunteers display every day in their work. They truly are miracle workers, and I will always support them however I can.”
Velis added that he extends that support to all of the organizations in the Second Hampden and Hampshire District.
“I always want to learn about their work, who they service, and how I can best assist them,” said Velis. “So many of these groups have amazing missions, with amazing people, and I just want to support them in their work.”
Gary Wolfe, president of the Westfield Food Pantry’s board of directors, said he too has seen firsthand the need to provide outreach to those less fortunate. Wolfe has been involved with the organization for more than 20 years.
“During these times with COVID-19 we have seen numbers go way up,” said Wolfe. “If we can provide a mobile food service it would definitely be a benefit to many in Westfield, from senior complexes to subsidized housing areas. In my heart, I feel no one should have to go hungry.”
For area residents who would like to make a tax-deductible donation toward the mobile food pantry, donations can be made on the Westfield Food Pantry website, www.westfieldfoodpantry.org, or by sending a check to Westfield Food Pantry, 101 Meadow St., Westfield, MA 01085.
“I am so excited about pursuing funding to expand into mobile delivery,” said Hart. “The mobile food pantry and feeding program will allow us to reach more people right where they are.”