SOUTH PORTLAND — It happens to even well-behaved library users.

You check out a book and forget to return it by the due date. You eventually return the book, through the drop slot by the door.

Then, you avoid the librarian, because of the shame that comes with paying the dreaded late fee.

But through most of December, the South Portland Public Library will erase that shame and help those in need through a program called “Food for Fines.”

From Dec. 1-19, the library will forgive late fees, regardless of the amount, for patrons who bring in canned and nonperishable food to donate to the South Portland Food Cupboard. 

“Anything that people bring in we will be grateful for and we will forgive (late) fines,” Library Director Kevin Davis said. 

Davis said the forgiveness program, which was suggested by circulation librarian Susan Samberg, does not cover fees for lost or damaged items.

Davis said other libraries have had similar programs, usually with a certain dollar amount for specific kinds of foods. But South Portland will forgive all late fees, regardless of the contribution.

“We don’t want to set any barriers for people,” he said.

The help comes at a time when donations to the Food Cupboard, in the basement of (but unaffiliated with) St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St., are becoming less frequent.

It also comes at a time when the number of people seeking food assistance is on the rise.

“It’s a little drastic this year,” said Sybil Riemensnider, the Food Cupboard’s volunteer director.

According to its annual report, the pantry took in more than $82,000 in 2008-2009. In 2009-2010, however, the group received less than $70,000 – a 15 percent decrease.

Over that same period, the pantry experienced a 17 percent increase in the number of people seeking food assistance. Riemensnider said the pantry has served 260 families, or 617 people, in each of the last six months.

And Riemensnider said the new clients are not traditional users, like the elderly or those receiving state aid.

“The new ones are you and I who have lost their jobs,” she said. “They have never, ever gone into a food pantry.”

The pantry is open on Thursdays, excluding holidays, and serves people who earn up to 150 percent above the federal poverty level.

Federal income guidelines vary, depending on how many people are in the family, but a family of four making less than $2,700 a month are eligible.

Riemensnider said the pantry not only serves residents of South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, but also some from as far as way as Windham, Hollis and Sebago.

While the pantry receives its supplies from office fundraisers and Hannaford in Mill Creek, which donates all food that reaches its sell-by date, the food cupboard also receives fresh produce from Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

Riemensnider said the pantry also buys produce from Native Maine Produce.

Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped up assistance to food pantries, Riemensnider said the pantry is still struggling to meet the demand.

“We don’t get enough donations to fill these shelves,” she said.

Riemensnider said she hopes the library’s Food for Fines program will not only help increase the donations coming into the Food Cupboard, but also let more people know about the local pantry, rather than only thinking of pantries in Portland.

“People always think about downtown (Portland),” she said. “But we do a lot here.”

Meanwhile, the library director hopes the Food for Fines program will allow patrons with late fees to shed their guilt and give to a worthy cause.

“Hopefully, by wiping out the fees, we can wipe out any hard feelings people might have,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

Sidebar Elements

South Portland Food Cupboard Director Sybil Riemensnider stocks empty shelves at the food pantry at 611 Main St.

Items to donate

Food for Fines participants are asked to bring the following items to the South Portland Public Library:

• Chicken noodle soup

• Tomato soup

• Pancake mix

• Apple or grape jelly

• Baked beans

• Cocoa

• Corn flakes

• Toasted oats

• Crisped rice cereal

• Canned milk

• Tea

• 1-pound coffee containers

• Canned tuna

• Macaroni and cheese

• Spaghetti sauce, canned tomato sauce and canned diced tomatoes

• Canned fruits and vegetables

• Shampoo, toothpaste, bath soap and deodorant

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