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Two-year $180,000 grant to expand food insecurity resources, programming at BCC and MCLA

Two wings of a concrete complex meet in a quad.
The Berkshire Community College campus in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The two public colleges in Berkshire County have received $180,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funding to address food insecurity among their student bodies.

The American Rescue Plan Act money will flow to Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams through a Community College Campus Hunger Program Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

“It'll stretch over a few years, and both campuses are going to be working in partnership on programming, but also creating one joint position that will help both the campus cupboards and the food pantries," said Celia Norcross, dean of students at BCC. “Ours is called Campus Cupboard and over MCLA, they have a food pantry. And both are just real access points and resources for students- Not only for your daily and weekly food items, but really for educational materials, connections to other resources in the county. We also help with diapers and needs for families. We have a number of different materials in addition to food that usually Campus Cupboard stock around housing, cleaning needs, and different things that are in there.”

It's estimated that between the two schools, around 600 students struggle with hunger and putting food on the table.

The programming aspect of the grant will connect students facing food insecurity to state and federal resources.

SNAP benefits is on the top of the list, and some other pieces, but also creating these plans, these financial plans and workshops to making sure that you can continue longevity and create a sustainable plan for yourself,” explained Norcross.

“They're also going to help support a student employee program and have student advocates," said Jeanette Smith, Vice President for Student Affairs at MCLA. “They’ll be supporting them through training, education. Students are often their own best advocates, they often know what they need. And as peer mentors and educators, they listen to each other. So being able to have students involved in the process will be great too. It'll help us do some programming like cooking and nutrition classes. It'll help us with financial literacy workshops in partnership with different local banks. The grant also will provide professional development training for faculty and staff- So, just help us better strengthen our tools when it comes to recognizing or identifying signs of food or housing insecurity, and then knowing what resources that are available and how to get students connected to those resources.”

The grant runs through June 2024. Norcross says it will also allow for both institutions to take a closer look at the systemic equity issues underlying food insecurity among college students.

“It definitely impacts our students of color and low-income students at the highest level," she told WAMC. "They don't have access to adequate food, they don't have access to the education, they oftentimes times have to work to just make bills meet and met in their lives, taking care of their families, that really, that through the history of basically the world, right, the history has shown itself that these groups have been underserved and certainly underrepresented at the table when it comes to these conversations.”

“When it comes to equity and allowing all for our students to be able to access education knowing that their most basic needs are met, this is but one tool and one resource that is finite," said Smith. “We're always going to have students, and we're always going to have students who are a part of a community that has, sometimes, trouble accessing basic needs. And this type of funding allows us to not only support them, but educate ourselves on how their needs are changing and what we can do to support them.”

Norcross stresses that both BCC and MCLA intend for the impact of the grant to be felt well beyond their respective campuses.

A year before the pandemic, a report found Berkshire County had 16,000 food insecure residents, 12 percent of the population.

“Everyone makes a difference, you know, whether it's you getting educated yourself through this system or through our navigator and positions and programs that we've offered, and that no one is immune to it," she told WAMC. "You know, this impacts hundreds and thousands of families annually and even daily here in the county, and if you just know a little bit more about how to help and learning things about Hunger Free program or SNAP benefits and programs like our two colleges are going to be involved in, you in turn, even if you're not at the need or at the table with the need at the moment, you may be one day and having that information will help. And you're just offering it to those within your own community as far as a handout, as, with information and support or where to go when you've got questions or are in need is so important. You know, it's a group effort. It does not impact one family alone, and often stretches around across the whole county.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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