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Local food pantries thriving through generosity, ingenuity
ALL AGES WELCOME — From left, Sharon Purington, Tina Donahue, and Nathan Hutchins volunteer at the Tri-Town Food Pantry in Poland.
AREA — Food pantries across Oxford and surrounding counties are trying to do more with less.
The amount of food available has been reduced by various factors, including a national economic downturn, and improved efficiency from retails chains.
Meanwhile, as a faltering economy leaves more people unemployed or earning less, the level of need has increased.
Staff from food banks all across the region say that members of the community are looking for more ways to help each other. Several area programs have introduced innovative new approaches to feeding the poor, which has turned the old-fashioned idea of a soup kitchen upside down.
From 2008 to 2009, the amount of food distributed by the Good Shepherd food bank in Auburn increased by 20 percent, from 10 million pounds to 12 million pounds.
Good Shepherd supplies food to pantries located all across the state.
"Ever since 2008, there has been a steady increase in need. Our partner agencies are seeing more people come in all the time," said Clara McConnell. "We're doing all that we can. The people of Maine really understand how important it is to help out their neighbors in tough times."
While need is always high, the amount of food they can distribute is limited by how much they get in donations. The economy has also had a negative effect on that end of the operation.
"We get a lot of our food from large retailers, and they are continually improving their operations, so we're seeing less come in from them because they're doing better at what they do and wasting less food," says McConnell.
As a result, the food bank is looking at what else it can do to maximize its resources. McConnell described the Maine Farmer, Dairy and Seafood initiative, which has looked more to local options.
"Over the last year we've initiated partnerships with 18 Maine farmers and we purchase their produce and put them out to pantries and food kitchens across the state," she said. "We're trying to think about what Maine has to offer, which is the land, the ocean, and the people that work the land."
In addition, it has tried to encourage more healthy eating habits through cooking and nutrition classes that it has promoted in southern Maine and some of Oxford County.
"It's one thing to get the food out to people but they have to know what's healthy and what's not, and how to prepare a healthy meal for their families. When we look at the larger picture of how to end hunger, that's an important piece of the puzzle."
Tri-town enlisting all ages
The Tri-town food pantry on Route 26 in Poland has been seeing more and more people coming in.
"It was three and a half years ago that it hit us that something is going on. Now we're putting out about 65 boxes a month and it's increasing every week," said Sharon Bazinet, a long-time volunteer at the food pantry. "We have a lot of families that come in every week."
Though volunteers have had problems keeping up with the need, they have been relying on the goodwill that their services have earned them in the community to help them through. Even in difficult times, the good that they do is evidenced by the people who come in.
"It's a hand up, not a handout. I never consider it a handout,"said Linda Laskey. "We had someone bring things in today that we helped out years ago. So what goes around comes around."
To encourage people who need it to use their resources, they have taken a number of creative steps to make their organization more than just an ordinary food pantry.
While distributing food, they use other rooms of their building for a thrift shop and a "never-ending garage sale." The former accepts clothing donations and sells them to its patrons for $2 a bag, something which is especially important during cold Maine winters. The garage sale accepts household items and sells them. Proceeds from both go exclusively to helping the food bank.
Managing all of these operations requires a willing and able volunteer force, which is made up of various parts of the community. That it accepts donations for a thrift shop and garage sale in addition to the food pantry allows people a variety of ways to help, even if they don't have a lot of time, and it draws workers from all demographics, from Boy Scouts to retirees.
It will be holding a large fundraiser on April 9 at the Congregational Church in Poland called the Sizzling Spring Fair. Staff will be accepting food donations for a bake sale, items for a silent auction, and will be holding a luncheon. Community donations and the efforts of their volunteers will be expected to drive the fair just like everything else they do.
Said Sharon Bazinet, "It's all teamwork."
Naples to expand garden
Now in existence for two years, the Crosswalk Community Outreach Pantry in Naples is already seeing its numbers increase, and is looking for ways to provide for them.
"Our numbers have increased by 40 percent since last year," says Joanna Moore. "We personally have not seen more state or federal aid. A lot of the funding we have gotten is from programs that have already been in existence for many years."
To handle demand, volunteers have depended on networking with the community and engaging with local farmers.
Last year, they started a volunteer-operated farm of their own, and are now looking to expand. They've been applying for grants to fund an expansion, and cooking classes to help teach people what to do with the food,
"We're raising funds to hopefully expand our community garden," said Moore. "Hopefully we're going to be able to use town land to build the garden and it's also going to help the community."
New Oxford pantry growing
Pat Stanley-Beals of Oxford started the Oxford SDA Food Pantry on Fore Street last April, and has seen the number of people she has served expand significantly.
The pantry is open on the first Tuesday of every month, and has grown by more than five times since April. She started with 20 families and now serves 110.
One trend that she has observed has been an increase in the number of young, single men who have come to the food bank as a result of unemployment. They are able and willing to work, but have nowhere to do so. Along with her other volunteers, she has seen a willingness to help there in the absence of other work.
"The whole process is extremely rewarding," she said. "They give to us, we give to them."
Norway serves five towns
Not all the towns that could use one have a food pantry. As a result, Norway's Oxford Hills Food Pantry on Green Street has been serving several surrounding towns.
Needy families from Norway, Paris, Oxford, West Paris and Hebron have been given access to the pantry, often being sent there by members of their town office.
As a result, the Norway pantry has had to stay open more often than any other in the county. Currently, they open from 9-11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and have families coming in every day that they're open.
They have been accepting donations from local businesses and churches, even using St. Catherine's Church across the road to store extra food.
Claire Zimmer can't even remember exactly how long she has been volunteering there, but it's around 16 or 17 years.
"You do whatever you can to get as much food out to as many people as you can."