At least 12.5% of Western Massachusetts residents are living below the poverty line, and that number is growing.
In 2010, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts launched a new approach to its work with the emergency food network across Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties. The Network Capacity Building program seeks to integrate and enhance emergency food services in Western Massachusetts to provide more comprehensive and long-term solutions to hunger. Based on the model of our successful Target:Hunger program in Springfield and North Berkshire County, this initiative takes a whole-systems approach by increasing the effectiveness of resources available to vulnerable households that will help them achieve greater food self-sufficiency. The Food Bank is working with emergency food agencies and other partners across each county to develop comprehensive services, strengthen partnerships, and build the capacity of agencies to better serve the increasing number of people seeking assistance.
This program involves the following key steps:
Work with emergency food assistance agencies in each county to assess capacity needs and opportunities for collaboration and/or coordination of services.
Offer capacity building opportunities to agencies to help them serve more people more efficiently using best practices.
Develop networks of emergency food providers and other local organizations to reduce duplication, increase collaboration, and identify community and policy priorities around food access.
Support agencies in providing new programs to their clients that focus on hunger prevention and self-sufficiency, including nutrition workshops, SNAP (Food Stamps) outreach and enrollment, affordable food buying cooperatives, advocacy and connection to local food initiatives such as community gardens, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms.
Over the last two years, more and more people have turned to the emergency food network – local food pantries, meal sites, shelters, and other feeding agencies – to survive. According to a study conducted by The Food Bank and Feeding America in 2009, more than 15,000 different people in Western Massachusetts receive emergency food assistance every week, an increase of about 22% since 2006. Thirty-five percent are children and eight percent are elders. In total, about one in every eight residents of our region receives food from The Food Bank.
Unfortunately, food assistance agencies lack the capacity to respond to this need. In 2009, The Food Bank found that many agencies wish they could provide more comprehensive services to help improve their clients’ food security, but they don’t have the capacity to do so. In fact, many agencies are just struggling to survive:
· 60% need more nutrition education.
· 50% need training in food handling.
· 48% need help accessing other local resources.
· 60% need SNAP application assistance.
· 56% have funding challenges.
· 35% don’t always have enough food to serve all the clients who come to them.
· 54% rely entirely on volunteers to run their services.
Combined with these capacity issues, the emergency food network lacks coordination of services, meaning that households can’t always get the support they need when they need it. In addition, few agencies are able to offer programs to their clients that focus on prevention and self-sufficiency because they don’t have the resources or infrastructure to do so. The result is that the households continue to rely on emergency food and agencies continue to struggle to meet increasing demand.
Responding to this crisis of capacity, the Network Capacity Building Program focuses on building the capacity of the emergency food network to provide more food to more people while increasing client self-sufficiency. The program recognizes the critical need to move beyond emergency food provision in order to reduce hunger and increase food security in our region. Food Bank staff work one-on-one with emergency food agencies in each county to determine their needs, opportunities for collaboration with other agencies, and potential expansion of services to include a greater focus on building long-term self-sufficiency for clients.