Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity was an urgent issue in the Pioneer Valley, says Rachel Telushkin, interim executive director of Brick House Community Resource Center. Getting reliable, nutritious meals got even harder when schools closed, unemployment hit, and grocery prices skyrocketed.
A grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley helped Brick House, located in Turner Falls, to be quick and creative in ensuring that staying fed would not go from difficult to impossible for this rural community.
Brick House, whose core offerings are parent and family support services and youth programs, was already a distribution site for school breakfasts and lunches. Seeing the need to help their folks navigate the newly complicated terrain of the pandemic, they quickly hired a food resources coordinator. Knowledgeable about local families and local food programs, “She connects volunteers, local businesses, families, youth, and existing resources all together,” says Telushkin.
Food isn’t just nutrition and calories— it’s family time, social connection, and a source of pleasure amidst pain. Brick House has teamed up with local restaurants to create Family Friday, when family-sized meals are created and delivered to households before dinnertime. “This is nice food that people can enjoy together as a family,” says Telushkin. “We hope that people can use these meals to relax with each other for an hour.”
Brick House’s afternoon teen center has shut its physical doors for now, but staff are meeting with youth online with a daily drop-in hour on Zoom, online games and music lessons, and one-on-one support. It turns out that what young people miss about their weekly music class is as much the pizza as the music, so Brick House started “Pizza Wednesday.” Youth can pick up individual-sized pizzas to eat at home.
The agency is also offering cash assistance in the form of grocery store gift cards. “It’s a very concrete way to help people who have lost jobs and have hard decisions to make about how they spend their money,” says Telushkin. “We don’t have a complicated intake, and it helps people free up dollars to pay rent and utilities.”
Brick House is still distributing daily free lunches from the school district and offering youth snacks for pickup in front of its brick building (otherwise closed for business) on Third Street in Turner Falls.
“The grant has been hugely helpful to us, allowing us to be really nimble. For example, we bought a freezer so we could take advantage of food donations like 22 cases of soup from Just Roots, a community farm in Greenfield. Because we had the money on hand for a freezer, we won’t have to turn food donations away.”
Summer will demand even more of families and the community. The COVID-19 Response Fund grant has allowed Brick House to think creatively and flexibly about how to meet those needs as the pandemic continues, and its usual summer programs will be up and running in pandemic-friendly formats; and food distribution will continue. No matter what the future brings, Brick House will find a way to be there.