WESTBROOK – Earlier this week, floor space was at a premium at the Westbrook Food Pantry.

As could be expected, with Thanksgiving coming up, the pantry’s volunteers were busy packing hundreds of baskets of food, getting them ready to put in the hands of families who need the help this holiday season.

“Our floor is covered right now with 283 baskets,” Jeanne Rielly, director of the Westbrook Food Pantry said.

Last year, she said, the food pantry distributed 250 boxes. This year’s number represents more than a 10 percent increase.

The baskets contain most of the trimmings for a Thanksgiving meal – potatoes, apples, onions, cans of corn, peas, cranberry sauce, boxes of stuffing, breads, pies and other desserts. They do not contain a turkey.

While some food pantries include a turkey in its Thanksgiving boxes, Westbrook’s pantry discontinued the practice a few years ago, Rielly said. She explained that it was a logistical headache to procure and store the frozen turkeys and then, when they did include the birds in the Thanksgiving basket, many clients couldn’t use them because they had no way to thaw or cook them.

“We have a lot of clients who only have toaster ovens and microwaves,” Reilly said. “And they have small refrigerators, so they can’t even put them in the refrigerator to thaw.”

So, in lieu of a turkey, Rielly said each basket would also contain a $10 gift card from Hannaford, which could be used to offset the price of a turkey, or anything else in the store.

And while Thanksgiving is a time when many people think of local food pantries like Westbrook’s, which is located in the Westbrook Community Center, the need is a year-round one, and according to Rielly, is steadily increasing.

“We’re definitely seeing consistently every month, 30 to 40, even 50 more (people) than that same month a year before,” she said. “(There are) a number of reasons, most likely, but we’re definitely a seeing an increased number of clients.”

The majority of those clients come from smaller families and seniors who are having trouble making ends meet.

“Most people would think that we are seeing families of six, seven or eight (people),” Rielly said. “Those are our small numbers. We have a lot of (one and two person families) for the most part.”

One of the possible reasons for the increased demand, at least in Westbrook, could be traced to the pantry’s physical location. After years of bouncing around in temporary locations like the Dana Warp Mill and the old St. Hyacinth school building, the pantry has found a permanent home at the easily accessible Westbrook Community Center, located in the Fred C. Wescott building (the former Westbrook Junior High School) on Bridge Street.

“The center is much easier to get to,” Rielly said.

She also believes that because the community center is also the home to the city’s general assistance office, it makes it easier for those on general assistance, instead of getting food vouchers from the city, to go to the food pantry and get what they need.

“The city has been happy that we exist because it does ease the burden (on its general assistance),” Reilly said.

Rielly said support from the community has been exceptional.

“We’re very well-supported in the Westbrook community,” she said, mentioning schools and churches and local businesses such as, Sappi, Artel, Bill Dodge, Idexx and Disability RMS that have held drives to support the food pantry recently.

For more information on the Westbrook Food Pantry, visit the pantry’s website at www.westbrookfoodpantry.org or call 591-8147.

Helping to pack Thanksgiving boxes at the Westbrook Food Pantry on Saturday are, from left, Edward Rielly, Jeanne Rielly, Ellen Burrill, Nancy Crump, Terry Cressey, Edna Flaherty, Jeanie Barrett, Barbara Merrill.  Not shown are Brigid, Phil, and Sadie DelVecchio, who also helped with the boxes. Some 283 boxes, filled with potatoes, apples, onions, cans of corn, peas, cranberry sauce, boxes of stuffing, breads, pies or other desserts, and a $10 gift card for Hannaford, were distributed to Westbrook residents this week.     

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