CHICOPEE — Chicopee has become the hub for food security now that the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has officially opened its doors at 25 Carew St.

The new state-of-the-art facility serves not only as the Food Bank headquarters, but also the food distribution center.

On Dec. 14, over 100 people gathered for its grand opening. Attendees went on self guided tours and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres before the speaking portion of the ceremony.

Dr. Will Dávila, president of the Board of Directors at the Food Bank, said, “I’m proud of how the Food Bank is not only feeding Western Mass., but they are — we are — advocating for this community, leading the discussion and effecting change in real and meaningful ways, including work to destigmatize this issue [hunger].”

In a grand opening video presentation, some history about the Food Bank and the reason for its move was shared.

Since 1982, the Food Bank has worked alongside countless others to expand the power of community.

Today, the Food Bank partners with more than 170 front line food pantries and meal sites to provide healthy food throughout the region. It also partners with policy makers, volunteers, schools, businesses and others, not only to provide healthy and other forms of food assistance, but also to confront many underlying causes of hunger.

The Food Bank partners with donors of food and funds, who make it possible for the Food Bank to lend a hand out to households facing food insecurity.

The mission of the Food Bank is to end hunger in the region.

Prior to moving to Chicopee, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts was in Hatfield. While the space served the Food Bank well for decades, the organization outgrew it many years ago.

Planning for the new, larger location in Chicopee began about six years ago, when they realized the Hatfield space was becoming too small to receive, store and distribute enough healthy food to households facing food insecurity.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Food Bank was forced to turn away hundreds of thousands of pounds of donated food due to lack of space. In total — to date — 1.4 million pounds of food was turned away.

In January 2022, the Food Bank launched a capital campaign to raise funds to build and equip a larger and greener distribution center in Chicopee.

The Food Bank raised $30 million through the generosity of public, foundation, business and individual donors.

The new home in Chicopee is twice the size of the former Hatfield facility. The warehouse has larger sections for dry, refrigerated and frozen food, along with nine loading docks — compared to two in Hatfield — to receive and distribute more healthy foods, more efficiently.

The additional space allows for more food to be stored, accepted and sourced.

On the exterior of the building, the parking lot has space for all its staff and guests, including electric charging stations.

Green technology features include heat pumps, electric battery storage and solar panels on the roof that will generate much, if not all the electricity needed. The building is expected to have near to net zero carbon emissions.

Private office space within the new facility allows visitors to come to the Food Bank for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollment and related service referrals.

There is also a community space with a working kitchen that allows the Food Bank to host cooking and nutrition workshops along with other educational and community events.

Mayor John Vieau said, “I’m a less fortunate kid from Willimansett growing up and I know what it’s like to struggle. Food insecurity is real and food deserts really do exist, that’s why I’m so proud of our food pantries that are out there.” For instance, Chicopee has a mobile pantry — Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen and Pantry — that is out there delivering food to neighborhoods where people cannot get out to get it themselves.

“The Food Bank of Western Mass. has allowed Chicopee to be the hub of food security for not just the city, but for Western Mass. and regions far and beyond,” Vieau shared.

He said he used to say this just about Chicopee — “Chicopee, if there’s a need, a cause or a reason, they come through every single time. I’m [going to] extend that all the way to Western Mass because that’s what really happened here. There was a need, there was a cause and there’s a great reason and there’s nothing better than having a facility that’s built to suit … To suit your own needs.”

Vieau thanked all those who were generous enough for making this happen and thanked the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts for choosing Chicopee as its new location.

Prerecorded messages were shared from U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Cambridge) and Edward Markey (D-Malden) who facilitated a $3 million grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, that assisted with the center’s rooftop and parking lot canopy solar array, along with other green technology.

Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot also extended her congratulations in the video.
U.S. Reps. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) and James McGovern (D-Worcester) attended the event. Neal thanked Vieau and the people of Chicopee for welcoming the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

He also acknowledged McGovern for not only being a leader but being the leader in congress on the hunger issue across America.

“Congratulations to all of you. This is really a special day in Western Massachusetts,” Neal said.

McGovern shared, “[The] House of Representatives has become a place where trivial issues get debated passionately and unfortunately, important ones, not at all. This one is important. We live in the richest country in the history of the world and there are over 40 million Americans who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from.” He noted that those individuals defy stereotypes, and while there are people who are unemployed, there are also people who are working full time, elderly people, young people and everything in between. “It is unconscionable that that is the reality in this country, and we need to develop the political will to end hunger once and for all [and] this is part of that political will,” he added.

During what McGovern described as “a very troubled time” in this country, he said it is an “uplifting feeling” to see people that truly care about others.

Dávila added on to McGovern’s point saying, “This is about ending hunger, it’s about breaking that cycle. It’s not just about putting a meal on the table; it’s about how do we get folks to do that on their own and have the resources they need to survive.”

Natalia Muñoz, community partner from Holyoke Media, shared her own stories and lived experiences with food insecurity.

Muñoz said she was “humbled” to see so many in the room who have felt hunger.

“I have experienced hunger,” she said. “Hunger is traumatizing.”

She shared, “I wish the Food Bank would’ve existed way back when, because then we wouldn’t have felt hunger, and we probably would’ve been happier adults as a result.”

She continued, “As amazing as it is that there’s a bigger warehouse and much more room and everything, it is also a reflection of one of the worst things that can happen in the wealthiest and mightiest of nations, and that’s hunger.”

Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Executive Director Andrew Morehouse thanked Muñoz for sharing her story. “May this be a reminder to all of us that there should be no shame at all in seeking a hand up because after all — let’s be real here — no one pulls themselves up by their bootstraps alone. Family, community and yes, even government, supports us all,” he said.

Recent data revealed that 107,000 individuals are receiving food assistance in a single month.

Morehouse noted that this includes all four counties of Western Massachusetts from a vast network — the region’s food assistance network, comprising not only the Food Bank but 175 independent, front line member food pantries, meal sites and shelters.

He went on to say that this number was a “dramatic increase” from just February of this year, when that number — still high — was 82,000 individuals. The reasons for this increase include inflation and the expiration of the COVID-19 benefits, among others.

Morehouse thanked state Sens. Adam Gomez (D-Springfield) and Jake Oliviera (D-Ludlow) for their efforts, along with all the Massachusetts delegation.

“The work of the Food Bank is important, but honestly, it’s the power of public policy and the advocacy work that you all do and that we do to hold our legislators accountable to create smart investments and policies that are really going to make a dramatic impact in our lives,” Morehouse said.

If it were not for Chicopee, the city would not have received a $1.6 million MassWorks grant awarded by the state that “literally paved the way for the site development of this property,” Morehouse said.
There was also $5 million awarded in American Rescue Plan Act funding, that was advocated for behind the scenes and ultimately approved by the state in 2021. Morehouse thanked the entire Massachusetts delegation for supporting that.

“This center really symbolizes the power of community,” Morehouse said. “For that reason, we’re really committed to work together to create a hunger free Western Massachusetts.”

Since moving in about three months ago, the Food Bank has provided 25% more healthy food than the same period last year.

This community food distribution center was made possible from “generous” investment from federal and state government, many private supporters, and donors of funds from individuals and businesses, Morehouse said. Over $30 million was raised, with government investment representing about half of that. The remaining half of funding came from 246 individuals, many of which attended the event.

Morehouse gave special recognition to Claire and Charlie D’amour from Big Y who could not attend the event, but were one of those donors, along with the MassMutual Foundation — both lead corporate investors.

Morehouse recognized the various partners from the member food pantry and meal sites.

The single largest source of food received through the Food Bank is through the Massachusetts Department of agriculture — other being federal and food emergency assistance programs through the United States Department of Agriculture — while the remaining half of food is received from local food donors such as supermarkets, wholesale grocers and dozens of local farmers.

Morehouse said the Food Bank has an “incredible partnership” with the Department of Transitional Assistance to undertake SNAP outreach and enrollment and nutrition education efforts. In the last year, the Food Bank assisted 881 individuals to apply for food stamps, as there are “very strict” eligibility requirements for this federal SNAP program. Of the 881, about 65% were approved, which translated to about ¾ of a million meals over the course of the year and over $1 million in economic activity in Western Massachusetts.

Morehouse acknowledged C.E. Floyd, the general contractor for the new site, VHB, the site engineers and Scalora Consulting Group, the orders project manager.

He also thanked his “partner in virtue,” Nancy Robinson Sr., director of operations. She managed the building project internally, which Morehouse said was a “resounding success.”

Morehouse concluded his remarks with a shoutout to the entire, “amazing” Food Bank staff, and nearly 1,000 volunteers who come and help sort food each year.

“Together, we end hunger,” he said.