Local church takes on summer hunger in Pittsfield

Felicia, volunteer: Summer Lunch Program, First United Methodist Church, Pittsfield

Felicia is a petite, 14 year old with a can-do attitude. In the community kitchen at First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield, she’s balancing following directions and managing kitchen work with dexterity and diligence. It’s the first day of the Kids Summer Lunch program at the church, and Felicia— along with her grandmother, Ella—is part of the volunteer staff that will serve the day’s meal. The work isn’t new to either of them: they started helping out in the kitchen seven years ago when Ella began bringing her grandchildren here to receive their own meals.

“I followed my grandmother around,” Felicia recalls, “and helped cook sometimes.”

“She did everything that I do!” Ella, who is now kitchen supervisor and volunteer coordinator at the meal center, adds.

Summer Lunch Program, Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church

No-cost summer meals are crucial for kids like Felicia and her siblings. During the months when school isn’t in session, 72, 537 students in western Massachusetts lose the free and reduced lunches they rely upon during the remaining nine months of the year. Families with limited resources often can’t afford to make up for these missed meals, resulting in a sharp increase in child hunger. That’s why seasonal meal programs are so vital to the well-being of children.

First United Methodist Church takes a holistic approach to serving anyone in the community who needs a helping hand.  Along with providing kids with summer lunches, they offer other food assistance programs that “…give children, youth, and adults breakfast, lunches, dinner, and emergency food throughout the week,” explains Alice Rose, outreach director for the church’s meal site and food pantry.

The kids who come to the church to eat usually arrive in groups — accompanied by counselors — from Pittsfield–area day care centers, camps, and summer schools. Each weekday morning, these organizations call in the number of kids they’ll be bringing to the church so that lunches can be prepared. Sometimes, whole families will drop in to eat as well. C&S Wholesale Grocers donates the paper dinnerware on which the meals are served.

As a member agency of The Food Bank, church staff and volunteers receive training, consultation, and support from our agency relations department to help them operate their food pantry and emergency meal programs efficiently. The Food Bank also provides food, including frozen meats and locally-grown produce for their clients. Rose says that this ongoing partnership has been crucial for her agency’s survival. “The Food Bank is our lifeline.”

Summer Lunch Program volunteers and staff: Felicia, far left; Ella, 2nd from left; Alice Rose, far right

For the church’s Summer Lunch program, flexibility is the key to making sure that the program runs smoothly. The number of kids who need to be served can change dramatically from one day to the next.

“We plate the food and serve it as they come in,” explains Ella. “We serve anywhere from 10 to 110 children each day. Lunch is free for anyone under the age of 18 and adults with disabilities.”

Felicia understands the importance of providing free, healthy meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry and says that she finds working for the Summer Lunch program rewarding.

“Parents don’t always have enough money to buy [lunch] every single day,” she says. “Some people can barely support [their kids] for dinner and breakfast. So, it’s way better, because it gives them a free meal and the parents have less worries — it just makes me feel great to help other people out who don’t have a lot of money and can’t help themselves.”