The Merrymeeting Gleaners operated the Sharing Table for nine weeks last year. Every Wednesday volunteers would set up the table with locally sourced produce for people to take anonymously. (Contributed photo / Kelly Davis)

HARPSWELL — Merrymeeting Gleaners is expanding its effort to ensure low-income Midcoast residents can get fresh, local produce to include three more towns.

The Sharing Table, which the Merrymeeting Gleaners launched for nine weeks last fall in Bath, was a single table piled high with fresh produce from local farms. The fruits and veggies were free for the taking, with no forms to fill out, nothing to sign and no one to ask personal questions. If you live in the Midcoast and can’t afford fresh produce to put on your table, then you were welcome to take what you needed from the Sharing Table, the group said.

“It’s anonymous. There’s no restrictions, and we don’t stand there because we want to reach people who are not necessarily comfortable with taking assistance from a food pantry or something,” said Merrymeeting Gleaners Coordinator Kelly Davis.

For the pilot program launched last August, the Merrymeeting Gleaners took produce donated from local farms and placed them on a single table in front of the Patten Free Library every Wednesday afternoon. At the end of the day, volunteers would return to clean up what little was left over and break down the table. In that brief period of nine weeks, the group was able to give away more than 600 pounds of fresh produce.

Inspired by that success and convinced that there is a greater need for free, fresh produce in Midcoast communities, the Merrymeeting Gleaners are expanding their Sharing Table concept to three other communities: Harpswell, Topsham and Bowdoin.

Davis said they chose those three towns to expand to because they weren’t as well served by other organizations.

Davis said that it’s difficult to determine how many people used the sharing table in Bath last year, since by design it doesn’t require people to sign in or apply to take produce. Still, the group does see a need for produce in the Midcoast area it serves.

“In 2018, we gleaned and donated over 49,000 pounds of produce to the organizations that we partner with, there are about 30 organizations that we donate to,” said Davis. “We definitely have seen a need, and the sharing table was just an idea that we piloted last year to see if we could reach more people that aren’t necessarily tied into those organizations but are struggling to put healthy food on the table. And it was so well received in Bath we decided to try it in a few other towns.”

A 2018 Sagadahoc County Health Profile found that 13.4% of people experienced food insecurity, and according to the American Community Survey 12.3% of households receive SNAP benefits.

Ben Whatley of Whatley Farm, who already donates excess produce to the Merrymeeting Gleaners and will be contributing to the Topsham Sharing Table, said that the idea of a Topsham Sharing Table was exciting.

Whatley noted that the Merrymeeting Gleaners provide a service to farmers who have excess produce but don’t have a way to get it to people who could use it.

“I got involved with the Gleaners first a couple of years ago, and they started coming to farmer’s market to pick up things at the end, which as a farmer I really appreciate because they make it easy to give,” said Whatley. “I always thank them at the end of market when they’re picking everything up. Really, they provide us a service by helping us do what we’d like to be doing regularly, which is giving extra produce that we have to people who need it.”

According to Whatley, farmers typically overproduce for farmer’s markets.

“The way it works at a farmer’s market is you kind of have to overproduce, because no one wants to buy the last tomato on the table,” he said.

Without the Merrymeeting Gleaners, some of that food would go to waste, he said.

Davis said that she didn’t have a start date for when the sharing tables in Harpswell, Topsham and Bowdoin would be up and running, but she expects them to start sometime this summer. In Topsham, they’re looking to set up the sharing table outside of the Topsham Public Library, and in Harpswell they’ll probably set it up in front of the town offices. The Merrymeeting Gleaners have already set up a Sharing Table inside of the school in Bowdoin, although they’re still looking for a location to use while school is out.

“They’ve kind of started one already, but it’s inside their school,” said Davis. “In the summer, we’ll find out where to move that when the school is closed.”

Davis said that the group is also looking into expanding the sharing table concept to Brunswick as well.

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