For most of us, preparing three meals a day seems like a hassle, if not a downright nuisance. For Berkshire Food Project, preparing 100 meals, every Monday through Friday, is all in a day’s work.
The nonprofit, which has provided free lunches to members of the Berkshire community for 30 years, started out in 1986 as a student project led by young scholars at Williams College. When Sprague Electric, one of the area’s largest employers, suddenly closed its doors, nearly 400 people found themselves jobless. The students mobilized, convincing the university to donate the money saved from the cafeteria’s Meatless Mondays to a new weekly soup kitchen, which the students founded at the First Congregational Church of North Adams.
Fast forward to today, and Berkshire Food Project is a bustling, 5-days-a-week operation that feeds 65 to 100 people per day. They also prepare to-go meals on Fridays, so participants can pick up food to eat over the weekend. And they do it all with a staff of three—plus the support of close to 100 volunteers (6 to 24 on any given day) and the generous gifts of a variety of individuals, businesses, and organizations around the Berkshires.
Executive Director Kim McMann explains, “We are so supported in the community.” She notes that several banks and credit unions and even a local publisher allow their employees to volunteer, on paid time, once or twice a month. Other organizations donate local farm shares, so Berkshire Food Project has fresh, local produce in the summer. And then there are the “incidentals.” For example, during a power outage around Thanksgiving last year, a local electric company loaned the nonprofit their generators, free of charge, so they could continue to serve during the holiday.
“When we put out the word that we really need something, people in the community always come through for us,” McMann says.
Williams College students are also still involved. Though their class schedules usually prevent them from helping out during lunch service, they volunteer on a project basis, helping, for instance, to paint the kitchen, create a slide show of volunteers and diners to show off the great work being done, and staff the biennial Empty Bowl fundraiser.
True to its original mission, Berkshire Food Project primarily serves people in need. This includes those who might otherwise go hungry, whether because of the loss of a job, financial hard times, mental illness, or dwindling social security. The organization also helps individuals and families who are on very tight budgets become food secure by providing a wholesome daily meal—and freeing them up to spend their money on healthy options at the grocery store for other meals. And it helps elderly clients who live alone to be part of a warm, caring community.
Berkshire Food Project also brings in some unexpected diners. As economic disparity has continued to push communities farther apart, McMann says, “We encourage people from all different backgrounds to come together over a meal. Sitting at our long communal tables, you get to learn about other people, and they learn about you. This builds empathy and helps us identify with each other.”
Anyone in the area can check Berkshire Food Project’s Facebook page for their daily menu. From chicken stew to steak stir-fry with rice and mac and cheese made with cheese from local dairy Cricket Creek Farm, the lunches served by Berkshire Food Project are restaurant quality. Doors open for coffee and mingling at 11:30 a.m., followed by lunch. Although there’s no obligation to make a donation, those who can are often so impressed with the work being done that they leave behind a gift.
Like many nonprofits, funding is the biggest challenge for Berkshire Food Project. This is especially true during the volatile Northeastern winters, which make it difficult to heat the building, keep the water running, and keep the parking lot free of snow and ice. Staff members also have to be ServSafe trained and certified. McMann states, “Being ready for the next expense—expected or unexpected. That’s the biggest challenge of running a nonprofit.”
McMann, who has been with Berkshire Food Project since last fall, is already planning ahead to the Empty Bowl fundraiser in May, as well an annual direct-mail campaign that usually brings in the lion’s share of the charity’s funding for the year. With the help of her staff, including a new employee who will be handling outreach, McMann is in the process of applying for grants, and hopes to eventually expand programming to offer personal-care services and entertainment for community members.
But mostly, McMann and her team just want people to know this: “We serve really good food! We serve local food when it’s available, we buy fresh vegetables all year long, and we cook from scratch. Even if you’re just coming to North Adams to visit MASS MoCA, you can come in and enjoy a meal with us. No matter where you’re from, it’s always good for us all to understand more about each other.”
She continues, “Everybody deserves to eat healthy food. We don’t judge people, and we don’t ask questions about why they’re eating here. We’re not here to fix the world; we’re just here to make sure people eat and stay healthy.”