The Holiday Inn by the Bay’s ballroom was transformed Wednesday night to resemble the 53,000-square-foot Good Shepherd Food Bank warehouse in Auburn. Piled on shelves and conveyor belts beneath the room’s brass chandeliers, boxes of donated food surrounded the crowd of more than 200 people who turned out for the organization’s fourth annual JoAnn Pike Humanitarian Award Dinner. The event raised $146,000 for the hunger relief organization.

“The first two years, we held the dinner at our warehouse in Auburn,” Communications Manager Clara McConnell told me. “Since then we installed a conveyor belt system, which prevented us from holding the event there. So we try to replicate it here.”

To highlight the donated food that is at the core of the nonprofit’s work, staff and volunteers showed up at 6:30 a.m. the day of the party to begin stacking shelves. After the party concluded, the food was returned to the delivery truck and distributed to food banks throughout the state.

Each day Good Shepherd Food Bank provides food for 25,000 meals, by supplying more than 600 soup kitchens, food pantries and assistance programs from Kittery to Fort Kent.

“The demand for food is overwhelming,” Good Shepherd president and CEO Rick Small told me. “We’re very grateful that the press has picked up on this epidemic of hunger in this state. We have over 200,000 people in this state who need food. One out of five children doesn’t have enough food.”

Such heartbreaking statistics are what propel so many Mainers to contribute time, money and food to this organization.

“We get donations from people who themselves are receiving food,” Small said. “We don’t want anyone to think their donation is too small. We can turn $1 into $8 worth of food.”

Now entering its 30th year, the organization began in 1981, when the late founder JoAnn Pike discovered the amount of still edible food being thrown away every day. By partnering with grocery stores and food producers, the organization soon began to grow to meet the ever-present need. To supplement the donated food, Good Shepherd uses cash donations to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

“JoAnn was one of those people who would see a need and do something about it,” board member Charlene Belanger said.

“Mainers are darn stubborn,” Small told me. “And they don’t like going to pantries. We’re seeing a growth in people who are in the middle class and have jobs, cars and a house. There may be more trouble next door than there appears to be.”

Brenda Davis, who heads Crossroads Ministries, which provides food bank services and other resources from its center in Old Town, sees this changing face of hunger in Maine every day.

“It’s working people and younger families,” Davis told me. “Twenty-five years ago it was alcoholics and people down on their luck.”

She pointed out that in the more rural parts of the state, food pantries are often spaced quite far apart. This means people in need have to drive a significant distance to access them, which can be tough as gas prices continue to rise.

Fellow guest Laura Perkins of Westbrook told me that it’s easy to “forget that some people live with a very restricted budget.”

When I asked Small what is the long-term solution to hunger in Maine, he said, “Grow our own, process our own, feed our own.”

This dovetails nicely with the growing push to rebuild the local food system in Maine.

“Our job is to really look at connecting the farmers and fishermen to the community,” board chair Diane Dunton Bruni told me. “There is such a great need and it’s not going away.”

Before dinner, we were treated to Casco Bay High School sophomore Sydney Kucine singing the national anthem and Small delivering a gratitude-filled invocation for the meal we were about to enjoy.

During the three-course meal, I had the pleasure of sitting at a table with Steve Carter, the new general manager at WCSH-6, Debbie Sample, who heads community relations at WCSH-6, board member Belanger, and Good Shepherd staffers Bob Dodd, Christine Force, Julie McQuillan and McConnell.

Once dessert was served, we heard from CEO of Delhaize America Ron Hodge (via video), president of Packaging Specialists Phil Ives, and Kevin Gregory, who runs Kevin’s Cupboard Food Pantry in Millinocket.

Then last year’s JoAnn Pike Humanitarian Award winner Larry Wold, president of TD Bank in Maine, took to the stage to present this year’s award to Albert Lepage and Andy Barowsky, who head Lepage Bakeries and regularly donate to Good Shepherd.

“It’s an incredible way to help us use our healthy day-old products,” Barowsky said of their food bank donations. He then urged the guests to take home some of the bread, rolls and donuts displayed throughout the room.

As the applause for the award winners faded, Maine’s top funnyman Bob Marley bounded onto the stage with three bags of bread in his hand.

“I’ve got my bread,” Marley told us. “They said there was bread, and I’m taking it.”

He soon had the crowd howling with laughter as he joked about power outages, Maine roads, E-ZPass and getting directions from a Mainer.

Since hunger is such a serious subject, we all appreciated the chance to finish the evening with a smile.

If we can only figure out how to end hunger in Maine, those smiles will spread across the whole state.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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