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Huntington Food Pantry Director Laura Gavioli said the number of families coming to the pantry is increasing at an unprecedented rate.

Reminder Publishing photo by Amy Porter

HUNTINGTON — The Huntington Food Pantry is reaching out to the communities that it serves for support, something that it has not often done in its decades-long service of providing food to families in the Hilltowns.

The 501c3 nonprofit, based in the lower level of the Pioneer Valley Assembly of God at 63 Old Chester Rd., provides food to the residents of Huntington and more than a dozen surrounding towns. The pantry is open Thursdays, 9-11:30 a.m. and 2-4:30 p.m.

The financial squeeze “started last year, post-COVID, with the block grant,” said Pantry Director Laura Gavioli. Last year, the pantry requested its standard yearly funding of $55,000 from the Community Development Block Grant, but that same amount was awarded to stretch over two years instead of one. There has also been a delay in being able to draw on the funds.

“Normally, somebody from the planning commission will let us know when we can start drawing on it,” Gavioli said. She said the pantry is now short on funds for gasoline for its truck, which picks up food weekly at the Western Massachusetts Food Bank in Chicopee, and to pay the overhead of running the pantry.

At the same time, there has been a marked increase in the number of families coming for food.

“Since Jan. 1, we’ve added 48 new families; it’s ludicrous, we’ve never done that before. [That means] 138 people brand new to the pantry that have never been here before, and we’ve given out 31,000 pounds of food year to date in the first quarter,” she said, adding, “People are coming back that haven’t been here in awhile. Thankfully, they’re hearing about us.”

Gavioli said during the COVID-19 state of emergency, people received aid from government programs, and the pantry was serving an average of 35 families a week. Now, the pantry averages 55 families a week, which she called “a substantial increase.” In 2022, the food pantry gave out 78,000 pounds of food in total to 440 individuals from 155 families.

“It’s amazing that so many people are coming out of the woodwork now, life is not getting any cheaper,” Gavioli said.

The pantry’s clients are able to choose what foods they bring home from an array of shelf-stable items, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, bakery items and meats. They can come to the pantry each week or as often as they need; there is no limit to access.

“We’re a choice-based pantry. People let us know what meats they want, then they walk through and ‘shop,’ so they don’t get food they don’t want. The number of weekly folks has really risen — a lot more people are availing themselves every week. That’s the blessing about this pantry — they get to choose the food,” Gavioli said.

Gavioli said that last year, when the pantry learned that the block grant would have to last for two years, it organized a few local fundraisers, including selling tickets for a quilt made by former pantry director Jill Bennett.

“It was a wonderful bump, but we assumed that we would be able to draw on the grant by now,” she said, especially since the application is already in for the next round of funding.

“Thank goodness for the Food Bank, and business partners with food donations — we’ve still got plenty of food to give out, but there’s overhead and the truck. If this truck didn’t run, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Gavioli said the pantry is in need of donations of money right now. Anyone wishing to make a donation may send a check to Huntington Food Pantry, P.O. Box 477, Huntington, MA 01050, or give online at www.pioneervalleyag.org/foodpantry. A hunger walk to raise funds for the food pantry is also being planned for September in Huntington.

“Every little bit helps,” Gavioli said.

Food donations may be dropped off at the pantry during the week. Gavioli said it’s best to call ahead at 413-667-3196 to make sure someone will be there.

“We’ll always take food donations,” she said. She said since they never know what food donations will be coming in from stores like the Big Y, and they don’t always get the variety they need from the Food Bank, the staff has to supplement the donations with purchases.

“People feel really good about giving food, but if they give money we get so much more bang for our buck at the Food Bank.” Gavioli said, adding that since the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts moved to a larger building in Chicopee, the variety of foods available has increased.

Gavioli said she wanted to make people aware of the situation, and also to raise awareness that the pantry is there for people who need it.  She said businesses in the area have been generous, as have the members of the church.

“We need the community to understand. We reach 14-plus Hilltowns,” she said.

The pantry is also always looking for volunteers to help serve their clients. For more information, contact huntingtonfoodpantry@gmail.com, or call 413-667-3196.

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