BOWDOINHAM — Local farmers and a network of volunteers plucked excess produce Monday to help feed more than 200 asylum seekers taking refuge in the Portland Expo.

Several volunteers squatted in the fields of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham for two hours Monday morning cutting mustard greens, kale and Chinese cabbage. They filled a truck with approximately 1,200 pounds of greens that will be picked up and delivered to Portland on Wednesday.

Cultivating Community, a Portland-based organization that works with immigrants to teach sustainable farming practices and connected them to the community, reached out to Maine farmers in its search for cooking greens to help feed the asylum seekers.

An emergency shelter was set up last Wednesday at the Portland Expo to accommodate an influx of people seeking political asylum in the U.S. Many are from sub-Saharan Africa.

Volunteers with the Merrymeeting Gleaners and Cumberland County Gleaners harvest excess cooking greens at Six River Farm in Bowdoinham on Monday. The farm donated the greens to help feed asylum seekers at the Portland Expo. Darcie Moore/Times Record

Portland has been on its own to pay for care of the asylum seekers, who are not eligible for state assistance. The Preble Street soup kitchen is feeding the asylum seekers three daily meals. It normally serves 200 to 300 people three times a day, and has doubled its normal output since Thursday, said Joe Conroy, senior director for food programs and facilities at Preble Street. There were still 223 people at the Expo to feed as of Monday afternoon.

Trying to feed the newly arrived immigrants normal soup kitchen cuisine didn’t go over so well.

“The first couple of things we sent over there, they didn’t eat,” Conroy said. “I have the executive director of (the Maine Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program) saying, ‘We have pregnant women not eating; kids not eating.’”

Cooking greens are a staple of central African cuisine, Conroy said. Some of the vegetables the asylum seekers would normally eat aren’t in season yet in Maine – eggplant and yams, for example.

Alex Redfield, the director of farmer training with Cultivating Community, said the organization has about 30 farmers originating from various African countries growing African green varieties. The first of the African greens will be ready next week.

“Those farmers are really excited about being able to provide food to their fellow countrymen who have just arrived,” he said.

Meanwhile, other local farmers are helping fill the gap and Preble Street will have a refrigerated trailer on site by Wednesday to help store extra food donations.

Nate Drummond, one of the owners of Six River Farm, gave a lot of the credit to other organizations and the volunteers who helped harvest the food on Monday.

Based on its farm cycle, Six River just happened to have an excess of greens.

“We had moved on from them but they were still in the field so it seemed like a good match and opportunity to have gleaners come out and harvest that bunch of food,” he said.

Many of the volunteers who harvested food at Six River Farm belong to the Merrymeeting Gleaners. The 80-volunteer network visits the farm and others once a week to harvest excess crops and deliver them to 30 locations in the greater Bath and Brunswick areas.

“We want to send a message that people should be treated like this and these farmers are just so phenomenal to share,” said Sandy Hempe, a member of Merrymeeting Gleaners. “The least we could do is come out and help.”

The Merrymeeting Gleaners expect other farms will join the effort as well.

Also donating were smaller farms in Lisbon, including Little Ridge Farm and Chirp Creek.

Keena Tracy, the owner of Little Ridge Farm, had an excess of spinach and donated 100 pounds of the greens. She said she could have worked to find a market to sell it, but it seemed fortuitous when she got the email from Cultivating Community.

She said she wanted to help feed people who have overcome hardship and shown extreme resiliency as human beings after leaving their country where they felt unsafe.

“Now they’ve made it here and I know eventually they will establish themselves, and they need help doing that,” she said.

Knowing the pressure on Preble Street right now, “I’m just happy to donate to that cause so that people can have not only food to eat but also food that they’re familiar with to make them feel a little bit more at home,” she said.

The Preble Street kitchen has committed to feeding the asylum seekers through July, Conroy said. The organization is asking for monetary donations to help, as well as their volunteers to sign up for open slots to keep the soup kitchen running for patrons there.

“It’s a community effort, that’s for sure,” he said.

[email protected]


Comments are not available on this story.