FLORENCE—Food insecurity skyrocketed in the past year in the Valley as the pandemic caused layoffs, slowdowns and business closures, and the results of Florence Bank’s 19th Annual Customers’ Choice Community Grants Program reflect an awareness of the crisis.
Last year, only 10 percent of Florence Bank customers cast votes for organizations that ease food insecurity. This year, twice as many votes were cast for the cause, perhaps because the bank itself committed to supporting organizations that focus on food insecurity at the start of the pandemic. Since March 2020, Florence Bank has donated $140,000 to help feed people who are hungry.
During its Customers’ Choice celebration on Tuesday, May 18 at Look Memorial Park, $21,528 of the $100,500 in grants that Florence Bank awarded to area nonprofits went to five organizations focused on feeding people. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Inc. and the Amherst and Northampton Survival Centers each received $5,000; Manna Community Kitchen in Northampton, $3,933; and Easthampton Community Center, $2,595.
“Certainly, we’ve seen the need for food assistance grow rapidly—the fastest it’s ever grown in less than a year,” said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of The Food Bank. “We need to be able to provide more healthy food to people who need it. We need more community support to be able to respond to that growing demand for food assistance.”
Lee Anderson, a board member for Manna Community Kitchen, said his organization has tripled in terms of the number of area residents for whom it is providing restaurant-quality meals. Manna is now providing 5,000 take-out meals each month at the Elm Street, Northampton, location, and it launched deliveries, serving roughly 30 households at present.
“Our food costs have doubled, at least,” Anderson said. “The generosity from Florence Bank will go right to paying food bills.”
Morehouse and Anderson were among those in attendance last night at the annual reception that concludes each year’s Customers’ Choice Community Grants Program for Florence Bank. Held at 5 p.m. at Frank Newhall Look Memorial Park, the celebration was attended by roughly 50 nonprofit leaders and bank staff and leaders.
Refreshments by Seth Mias Catering were served to a crowd of people who were deeply grateful to be at a community event.
“Can you believe it?” Florence Bank President and CEO Kevin Day asked those who gathered. “This event was one of the last events to take place in the Valley before the shutdown. And now it’s one of the first events to take place. Someone is definitely looking out for us.”
The community grants program is an annual offering founded in 2002; through it, Florence Bank customers are invited to vote for their favorite local nonprofit in hopes it will receive a share of grant funding.
To qualify for a community grant, organizations must receive at least 50 votes. In 2020, almost 7,000 votes were cast, and 32 nonprofit leaders accepted their grants Tuesday, when a total of $100,500 was awarded. That total included two “Almost” awards of $500 each to the Williamsburg Firefighters Association and Whole Children of Hadley, which each came close to receiving 50 votes.
In addition to organizations supporting food insecurity, 25 other nonprofits with over 50 votes accepted a check, putting Florence Bank over the $1.3 million mark in grants it’s presented to community organizations over nearly two decades through the customers’ choice program alone.
Over the past 19 years, Florence Bank has tallied more than 134,000 customer votes through Customers’ Choice, and it’s given grants to 157 different organizations.
“The commitment of Florence Bank customers to all of you serving the needs within our community is awesome, and we couldn’t be prouder to be able to support the programs our customers believe in,” Day said.
The following organizations received more than 50 customer votes and received an award at the event: Dakin Humane Society, Cancer Connection, Friends of Forbes Library, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County, each received $5,000; Our Lady of the Hills Parish, $4,837; Belchertown Animal Relief Committee, Inc., $4,326; Friends of the Williamsburg Library, $3,815; J.F.K. Middle School, $3,303; Riverside Industries, Inc. and Friends of Lilly Library, each $3,146; It Takes A Village and Goshen Firefighters Association, each $3,107; Edward Hopkins Educational Foundation, $2,989; Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, $2,556; Northampton Neighbors, $2,399; Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Granby Senior Center, and Friends of Northampton Legion Baseball, each $2,281; Northampton Community Music Center and Community Action, each $2,202; Friends of M.N. Spear Memorial Library, $2,084; Safe Passage, $2,005; R.K. Finn Ryan Road School, $1,966; and Historic Northampton and Belchertown K-9, $1,966.
Pre-COVID-19, Morehouse said The Food Bank provided sustenance to 90,000 people every month. As of December 2020, that number had risen to 115,000 every month—a twenty-six percent increase. “We’re talking about real people—children, elders, people with disabilities, including veterans—and increasingly, people who are trying to make ends meet, playing by the rules working full time and suddenly, they had the rug pulled out from beneath them and they have no wealth or assets to fall back on,” he said. “These are the folks we’re trying to support until the economy is restored.”
Funds from the grant translate into about 20,000 meals for area residents; the money will be used to defray the cost of purchasing, storing and distributing the food. “We’re very grateful to Florence Bank,” Morehouse said, noting that he is also appreciative of bank customers who supported the cause. “When we as a society are faced with such a traumatic experience as COVID-19, this support gets to the heart of what it means to be human,” he said. “People are thinking about supporting basic needs first.”
Anderson, of Manna, said, “The grant is instrumental. It will help smooth out the ups and downs of cash flow from individuals in the community. We really appreciate Florence Bank.”
Restaurant-quality meals, such as steak with gorgonzola butter or braised chicken in a chickpea stew—often prepared by Anderson—are served by Manna from 11:30 to 1:30 Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Manna also provides lunch and dinner to residents of two area cot shelters seven days a week.
“We’ve doubled in volume,” Anderson said. “Almost tripled.”
He said the meal delivery was launched to combat the stigma people may have felt about accepting food at the door. To request delivery, call 413-584-1757 or email via the website, mannanorthampton.org.
Aware of the greatly increased need for food, Florence Bank donated nearly $100,000 in 2020 to support a new food distribution collaborative and nine other longtime nonprofits with a mission to feed people who are battling food insecurity in the Valley.
The gifts were made to organizations in all corners of the region, including the Hilltowns, to help ease the economic strain brought on by COVID-19.
The Customers’ Choice Community Grants program is a year-long initiative. Customers of the bank can vote via paper ballots at each branch location or online at www.florencebank.com/vote.
Florence Bank has branches in Amherst, Belchertown, Chicopee, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Northampton, Williamsburg, West Springfield, and Springfield, and it is headquartered in Florence.
# # #
Florence Bank is a mutually-owned savings bank chartered in 1873. Currently, the bank serves the Pioneer Valley through 12 full-service branch locations in Florence, Northampton, Easthampton, Williamsburg, Amherst, Hadley, Belchertown, Granby, Chicopee, West Springfield and Springfield. Additionally, they offer 25 ATMs and a wide range of financial services including investment management through FSB Financial Group (FSBFG) to consumers and businesses. Florence Bank is consistently voted best local bank by the readers of the Valley Advocate and the Daily Hampshire Gazette.