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Early on a Wednesday morning in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a line of people perused boxes of fresh apples and green beans, frozen meat, and bags of bagels and biscuits at the South Congregational Church Community Food Pantry.
“What’s your number, honey?” Cindy Thomson asked each person. “Here’s your eggs.”
Thomson, 62, offered customer service that’s more solicitous than at a supermarket. "Is there anything special I can help you find?" she asked one patron.
"Just wondering if there is some hamburg somewhere in here?” he asked.
“Let me see,” said Thomson, poring through a box.
None of the pantry staff are paid. Thomson has been volunteering for seven years. She first came when things were tough for her.
“My husband was out of work,” she said. “And we were in need of the food.”
Now she and her husband are on Social Security and still use the pantry. But at first, just walking in was hard.
“Once I got in the door, the people here make you feel at home,” she said between helping customers. “They don’t make you feel degraded."
Seven days a week, churches like this one, and other groups in Pittsfield, give away food.
With 16.7 percent of city residents living in poverty, and the per-capita income at $27,830, many struggle to earn enough to feed their families.
But asking for a handout can stir up shame. That’s why this food pantry is working to take the sting out of that stigma.
Kristina Dronava, who has two young children, pushed a carriage with eggs, diapers, milk, lettuce and meat.
“I’m going to get some muffins — corn muffins,” she said.
Dronava, 25, goes to food pantries at least five times a week. She said the people at this one make her feel like she’s family, but at first it just felt weird.
“Feel[s] like people look at you differently, or you're obviously poor, or you don’t have enough stuff to feed your children,” she said. “But this is what I have to do.”
The South Congregational food pantry started about a dozen years ago. At the time, the church hosted a weekly meal for the hungry. Then diners started asking, “Do you have any food I can take home?”
“We started off with, like, 15 bags a week,” said Mary Wheat, who launched and manages the pantry. “And now we have pretty close to 500. It's grown a lot.”
That’s 500 families a week. And another 22 bags of food delivered to the elderly and the sick.
Wheat looks for ways to help people in need feel strong, such as asking people to volunteer, and letting patrons choose their own food instead of being handed a boxful.
“It empowers people,” Wheat said. “I mean, I think it makes them feel good to do that. It gives them a feeling of, like, they can help themselves.”
South Congregational also serves a hot dinner every week.
Pastor Joel Huntington said there's a free meal in Pittsfield every day.
“We do Wednesday night,” Huntington said. “The Baptists do Monday. The Methodists do Tuesday. The Episcopalians take Thursday and do sandwiches on Friday. And the Christian Center and Salvation Army cover the weekends.”
Huntington, who has made feeding the poor the main mission of his church, remembers not having enough to eat when he was a kid.
“I would make mayonnaise sandwiches, giant sandwiches,” he said. “Or take Saltine crackers, and crack them up in a bowl, and pour chocolate sauce over them, sort of pretending I have an ice cream sundae so I could go to sleep. Because otherwise, I'd just be too hungry. And so when I see kids coming to the pantry, I want to be there for them.”
“You want a snack?” Guadalupe Herrera, 36, asked her son as she pushed a cart filled with fruit, vegetables, milk and eggs past the baked goods at the pantry.
The 4-year-old spotted cupcakes with colored frosting.
“Can I take this?” Herrera asked volunteer Lutitia Tibbetts.
“Absolutely! I think he had a good eye for it,” Tibbetts said.
“Yeah!” Herrera laughed. “Thank you so much.”
Tibbetts, 87, goes to church here, and said handing out food makes her feel grateful.
“I hope we are a blessing to those who come, because they truly need it,” Tibbetts said. “You wouldn’t think in a place like the Berkshires — it seems like such a beautiful, wealthy area — that the need is here, but it is, definitely.”
Senior citizens also come to the pantry.
Antonietta Breda, 73, works part-time, but needs help getting enough food for her son and two grandchildren who live with her. So she comes to the pantry. But it isn’t easy.
“Because it’s like a charity, you know,” Breda said, her voice breaking. “I wasn’t brought up like that. But I lost my husband, so now I need help. I think for over 50 years, I helped other people. Now it’s my time. They help me. That’s what’s hard.”
But Breda said the people here make her feel comfortable.
“'Good morning,' they say, 'Good morning!' With a big smile on their face,” Breda said.
Cortine Smith, 51, also feels welcome. He works in a paper factory and said it would be tough without the food pantry.
“I would struggle enough to buy some food, in a way,” Smith said. “My rent is $550 a month and I work hard to pay my rent. So that’s the way I got to live my life.”
Outside, as people entered and left the food pantry, they were greeted by songs from the 1950s and '60s played on a boombox by Joey Johnson, a man wearing a red cape, black hat and white-rimmed, rose-colored glasses.
“I’m the rock 'n' roll underdog,” he said.
Johnson first came here to get food nine years ago. Now he's the sexton at the church, and he volunteers directing cars and pushing carts in the parking lot, his cape flying behind him.
“I play rock and roll to make people happy. It changes people’s moods,” he said. ”Because a lot of times, you can tell they wish they didn’t have to be here.”
Pastor Huntington first thought of the food pantry as a temporary fix, but today, he said, not having enough food is a chronic problem.
“I would love this thing to be able to shrink and just ultimately go out of business and we could serve in other ways,” Huntington said.
In the meantime, Huntington said this food pantry is like a daily miracle.
This story was first published by New England Public Radio.
This segment aired on November 9, 2018.
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