Demand at Lincoln County food pantries is up due to the coronavirus crisis – one pantry says it has doubled – but growth in donations and cooperation between organizations has allowed pantries to meet the need for the last six weeks.
Facing shortages from food distributors and more food insecurity due to the economic turmoil, pantries and other organizations have quickly adapted to continue serving county residents in need.
Ellen Dickens, co-manager of the Newcastle-based Ecumenical Food Pantry, said in a phone interview Monday, April 27 that demand is about 15% higher than last year and she expects it to continue growing as more people struggle with unemployment and missed paychecks.
However, she said the pantry is well stocked and encouraged everyone in need to drive up Tuesday for a pre-packaged box of food. The pantry is based at The Second Congregational Church in Newcastle.
“All in all, compared to many places, I think we’re in really good shape. … We want people who have any need to feel free to come and get food. We don’t want them to feel that they’re taking it from someone else or that there isn’t enough to go around,” Dickens said.
All food pantries in Lincoln County have shifted their practices to allow for physical distancing. Small groups of volunteers – under 10 together at any one time – pack boxes with a variety of essentials and fill individual orders for residents to pick up quickly and with minimal or no face-to-face contact.
The Ecumenical Food Pantry is open for pickup from 9:30-11 a.m. every Tuesday. Dickens said anyone in need can simply pull into the parking lot, wait in their car, and someone will come out to see what they need.
The pantry will also be open from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Friday, May 1. The special event will coincide with the pickup of student meals at CLC YMCA and Nobleboro Central School.
Dickens said the supply from Good Shepherd Food Bank, a major supplier of pantries across the state, has become more unpredictable and some things, like cereal, are not available. However, the pantry can still buy food from other sources, such as Main Street Grocery in Damariscotta.
The Ecumenical Food Pantry also continues to receive weekly donations of bread and milk from Hannaford Supermarket in Damariscotta.
An increase in monetary donations, kicked off by a $10,000 gift from an anonymous Damariscotta resident in late March, has also been critical to supporting the pantry’s mission.
The Good Shepherd Food Bank, which partners with nearly 500 pantries, meal sites, and other school- or health care-related food providers in Maine, has reported that 90% of the food pantries it serves are seeing an increase in demand.
The organization has spent more than $2 million in the first month of the COVID-19 response, almost double what it spends on shelf-stable food in one year.
“The impacts of COVID-19 in Maine have created a perfect storm for our food bank and our community hunger-relief partners,” Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale said in a Thursday, April 23 statement announcing a $1 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation. “Our food supply is down, our operational processes have been upended by social distancing, and the need is growing as more Mainers are facing unemployment and other challenges. Weighing all of these factors, we estimate our expenses related to the COVID-19 response will exceed $6 million over a six-month period.”
Miale predicts that food insecurity in Maine could grow by as much as 39% this year and there is no telling how long the increased demand will last as thousands remain unemployed across the state.
Food insecurity already affected 13.6% of Maine households compared to the national average of 11.7%, according to the September 2019 report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Another portion of the food pantries’ supply comes from a weekly food drive called Fill the Y Bus, facilitated by Karen-Ann Hagar, youth, teen, and outreach director at the CLC YMCA.
Hagar has conducted the food drive four times each year since the donation of a school bus to the YMCA in 2016.
When the coronavirus crisis started, she began holding the drives every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. outside Main Street Grocery in Damariscotta. She said the bus has been completely filled with food donations from community members every week since March 31.
Hagar encouraged people who are already out doing their essential grocery shopping to purchase extra supplies for donation to the effort, rather than coming specifically to make a donation. Donations can also be called in to Main Street Grocery at 563-3507.
Each week, a list of items that food pantries and other groups need the most is posted to the CLC YMCA Facebook page, to encourage donations of the most essential items.
The list includes needs of the Jefferson, New Harbor, Newcastle, and Waldoboro pantries, as well as the new Lincoln County Food Initiative, essential child care workers, and supplemental relief for all areas.
Hagar said that because of the generosity of the community and various grants, the only challenge the food drive has faced to date is managing the workload with a smaller number of volunteers. Like the pantries, the Y must limit the number of volunteers in order to observe physical distancing.
Allison Brooks, of the Jefferson Area Community Food Pantry, said demand has doubled, but the pantry is not yet overwhelmed.
“Hardworking families that were perfectly fine last month are showing up and some are a bit embarrassed, but we’re so happy to see them. We’re a no-judgment zone,” Brooks said.
Brooks said that with a pop-up pantry at the South Somerville Baptist Church on April 16, the organization was able to reach 30 new families, many of whom didn’t know the Jefferson pantry served Somerville.
Veggies to Table, a nonprofit farm in Newcastle dedicated to battling food insecurity, recently donated more than 1,100 seeds to the Jefferson Area Community Food Pantry and the Boothbay Region Food Pantry. The seeds include a wide variety of produce, as well as flowers, for people to grow on their own.
Brooks said care is being taken to ensure the seeds wind up in the hands of interested gardeners who will plant them.
The Jefferson Area Community Food Pantry is open to Jefferson and Somerville residents from 4-5:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at St. Giles’ Episcopal Church in Jefferson.
A key collaboration that has been delivering food to residents who cannot leave their homes is the Lincoln County Food Initiative, which formed in March to respond to the crisis.
The Lincoln County Food Initiative is a collaboration between the CLC YMCA, Ecumenical Food Pantry, Healthy Lincoln County, Kieve-Wavus Education, Lincoln Academy, and the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission that delivers free meals to residents in need.
The Lincoln County Food Initiative has delivered more than 8,300 meals since beginning deliveries March 23.
The food initiative serves as a hotline that county residents can call to find the help they need, whether for pickup or delivery, at 563-6658.
“People in need have one central location where they can talk to somebody who will explain how the food pantry works, where the food pantry is, what the process is like. Because there are a lot of people right now who need to access services who have never done so before,” Kate Martin, director of Healthy Lincoln County, said in a phone interview Monday.
Martin said that because the group mobilized early, they were able to create an efficient system to maintain funding for food purchases and distribution. She said the sustainability of the program and the potential for demand to continue rising into the foreseeable future are frequent topics of discussion, although the group’s supply chain is currently meeting the need in Lincoln County.
“This situation has really provided a great opportunity for a new level of collaboration that I’m absolutely thrilled to see,” Martin said.
Hagar, of the CLC Y, said the initiative came together quickly and fairly seamlessly in response to the virus.
“The bottom line was, people responded to the crisis and saw a need and they came together and filled it. Whether it be profit, nonprofit, it was just really heartwarming to be a part of,” Hagar said in a phone interview Monday.
She said the current team at Lincoln County Food Initiative is developing protocols to sustain the same type of coordination that is working so well into the future, when the coronavirus is a distant memory.
Hagar has faith that the generosity of the community, combined with grant funds, will continue enabling Lincoln County to keep its neediest residents fed.
“They always fill the need, even before COVID,” Hagar said of community members.