CHERRYFIELD, ME – Imagine not having steady access to food in order to live a healthy, active life. That’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecurity.” According to the nation’s “largest hunger relief organization,” Feeding America, 12.4% of Maine’s population is food insecure. In Washington County, home to the Mission’s food pantry, the reported 5,200 food insecure people constitute 16.5% of the county population.
In Spring 2020, Covid regulations forced an almost complete reinvention of how the Mission food pantry functioned. Patrons placed their orders by phone, driving to the pantry where Mission staff and volunteers loaded the pre-boxed orders into car trunks and truck beds. Staff and volunteers home delivered pantry orders to patrons living too far away, or who didn’t feel safe leaving their homes.
At that time the Mission began new or expanded partnerships. with area nonprofits such as Mano en Mano. Working with a $10,000 grant from Good Shepherd Food Bank, the food center helped distribute culturally-specific food for local families and migrant workers. Together, Mano en Mano, Vazquez Mexican Takeout Restaurant, and Downeast Community Partners used the Mission food pantry to distribute 165 boxes of food to 347 people.
As the food pantry grew in new directions, adjusting for ever-changing Covid-19 regulations, the Mission started making plans to grow food security services. Today, Food Security and Sustainability Programs Coordinator Megan Smith and Family and Community Resource Coordinator Stephanie Moores, are overseeing the creation of the Mission Food Center.
For example, after an interior/exterior building makeover this year, the pantry is running more like a grocery store.
“People just love that they get to come in, walk around, pick the items they want,” explains Megan. “The feedback has been tremendous. Pantry staff get to talk to have conversations with these people. It gives patrons more dignity and a place to feel comfortable.”
In addition, Megan says, “We don’t have limits on how many times people can come in, or on what they can take. Patrons can pick their own meat, produce, and shelf staples.”
That policy, says Megan, works toward the Mission’s goal for the food center as “a place for people to get food, and a place where people feel welcome.” With a welcoming “grocery store” atmosphere, Megan went on, “we can talk with shoppers.”
That’s important particularly when food insecurity is not the only issue a patron is trying to resolve. “It might not just be food insecurities patrons are wrestling with. It might be heating oil or some other issue,” reminds Megan. “And if these things come up we can help them. They don’t have to go someplace else to find another resource. It’s all at this one place,” she says.
With Washington County’s huge meal gap in mind, Megan says, “There’s always opportunity to let more people know about the resource. We’d love to grow, to be a mobile food pantry for communities without them. I hope we can show other pantries in the area how to become low-barrier pantries,” she says.
The food pantry is blessed with its long-term food supply partnerships with Good Shepherd Food Bank, Walmart (Ellsworth), Shaw’s (Ellsworth), Bayside Shop ‘n Save (Milbridge), and Folklore Farm (Cherryfield).
Megan agrees, but says that goodwill extends to the community. “People calling us and asking, ‘What do you need at the pantry that you don’t have? Especially for items people don’t think about. Like coffee and tea. They’re a huge part of people’s lives. We can’t always buy those and they’re not always donated,” she says.
In sum, says Megan, “The whole community is a huge partner.” And that bodes very well for the food pantry’s prospects for year 2022. To learn more or become involved, visit our Food Security Program.