PORTLAND – The Next Level Church, a new Christian congregation in Portland, rallied Thursday to make one of the largest donations ever to the Wayside Food Rescue Program: an estimated five tons of food.

About 1,000 people toting bags and boxes of nonperishable foods showed up for the church’s Christmas celebration at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center.

Church members donated money and food to Wayside, which collects 1.5 million pounds of food annually to distribute to more than 65 soup kitchens, food pantries and other organizations.

The food quickly grew into a mountain as people dropped off cartons of macaroni and cheese, cans of tuna fish and boxes of rice. Church members created a sprawling pile of giant boxes of Ritz crackers, Trader Joe’s bags filled with canned goods, and cartons of canned cream of chicken soup.

By the end of the night, the church members were expected to drop off close to 10,000 pounds of food.

“It is pretty awesome, ” said Joshua Gagnon, lead pastor of the church.

Gagnon founded the church in 2008 with 12 people. Its Portland congregation started this fall. Today, its membership is about 800. Members meet in Portland, Newington, N.H., and Dover, N.H. The church also operates a nonprofit coffeehouse in Dover, called Kaleo Coffee, which donates to community causes.

Don Morrison, program manager for the Wayside Food Rescue Program, called the church’s donation impressive.

“I have been with Wayside for a year and this is the biggest drive I have seen. This is pretty incredible,” said Morrison.

He was being helped by Ted Volger of Portland, a Maine Maritime Academy student, and Pat Chadbourne of Scarborough, a student at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The three expected to make two trips with their truck to transport all of the food to Wayside’s warehouse in Portland.

Morrison had given the church a grocery list. He said tuna, macaroni and cheese and cereals are always in demand. But Wayside has plenty of peanut butter, which it gets from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Church members said they were glad to make the donations.

“I brought tea and soup to help the needy,” said Arikah Conant, 10, of Windham.

Christina Winn, who drove up from Dover, N.H., with her family for the Christmas event, brought cans of organic baked beans, pumpkin and tuna.

“It’s a great idea. It just takes everybody doing a little bit to make a whole lot,” she said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]