The cars and trucks were lined up double-file in the food bank’s parking lot and spilled out onto the road, snaking along the shoulder toward the center of town in Harrison.

During a normal week, the Harrison Food Bank serves 250 to 300 families from dozens of communities in this rural corner in the foothills of western Maine. Last Tuesday, however, food bank volunteers handed out a week’s worth of groceries to 458 families.

“It’s a sad state of affairs out here in the country,” said Sandy Swett, treasurer and operational manager of the food bank, adding that she’s fielding so many calls for help that she “feels like a switchboard operator.”

Some people drove an hour-plus from mill towns like Rumford, Swett said, because they have nowhere else to turn as the coronavirus inflicts additional economic damage on already struggling communities.

“I think it’s going to get much worse,” Swett said on Friday. “No doubt about it. We haven’t seen this peak yet. We haven’t seen the epicenter in this area.”

Swett isn’t alone in that feeling that “the worst is yet to come.”

Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, are warning of a surge in COVID-19 sicknesses, deaths and economic trauma in the weeks ahead even as they urge Mainers to stay home and take other precautions to “flatten the curve.” Maine had 470 confirmed cases and 10 deaths as of Sunday.

Food banks and pantries in Maine – a state with the 12th highest food insecurity rate nationally, according to federal data – are scrambling to meet rising demands for assistance even as they face challenges procuring some “staples” and distributing that food.

Some pantries that operate out of town halls, churches or small spaces have been forced to close their doors while others have seen their ranks of (mostly older) volunteers dwindle as folks heed the advice to “stay home.”

Karen Schilling packs cans of fruit into one of the food boxes at Wayside Food Pantry on Friday. Each box contains about 25 meals. The food pantry usually does 60 to 80 food boxes a week and are now doing about 500 boxes a week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland’s Wayside Food Programs, for instance, went from 50 to 60 boxes or bundles of food for needy families each distribution day to having to hand out between 400 and 500 boxes.

Don Morrison, operations manager at Wayside Food Programs, estimated they are boxing up 40,000 pounds of food for their “mobile” distribution on top of the deliveries they make to dozens of food pantries across Cumberland County.

“It’s a lot of food,” Morrison said. “I’m concerned, yes.”

SCARCE SUPPLIES

Morrison and other leaders in Maine’s food assistance programs said they have seen tremendous response from the community in recent weeks. The state-mandated closure of all dine-in food service also means that huge supplies of fruits, vegetables and other perishables that would normally go to restaurants have flowed to them.

Yet they still face challenges procuring some of those shelf-stable products.

“Even though the situation is going to get worse, I am hoping that the food end stabilizes,” Morrison said. “That’s my hope.”

Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, said that while donations of perishable food are strong, donations of shelf-stable food are “practically nonexistent right now” because those products fly off the grocery store shelves as soon as they are re-stocked.

As Maine’s largest food aid organization, Good Shepherd operates a massive warehouse where donated food is packaged and shipped to more than 450 “partner” agencies and food pantries across the state. At present, Miale said, they are looking at six to eight weeks to fulfill orders for staples such as canned tuna or chicken, rice and pasta.

Miale said that, just like grocery store customers, food banks are having trouble finding pasta and other staples these days – and they buy it by the truckload.

“We are definitely concerned if the supply chain does not open up a little bit,” Miale said.

In a recent survey of Good Shepherd’s partner food pantries, half of responding organizations said they had seen demand for assistance increase by 10 to 25 percent while another 15 percent of respondents had seen demand increase between 25 and 50 percent.

But roughly one-third of organizations said demand for food aid was up by 50 percent, Miale said.

CHALLENGES BUT ALSO GOOD FORTUNE

Supply is one challenge. Distribution is another.

In compliance with physical distancing requirements, many local food banks have switched to drive-thru operations so that recipients never have to come inside. While that is better from a transmission-prevention standpoint, it means the already depleted volunteers have to box or bag those supplies for recipients.

With all of its retail stores closed nationwide, L.L. Bean recently converted its Freeport shipping hub into a sorting and packaging facility for Good Shepherd. Miale said her organization has also tapped a federal grant to hire more temporary workers at its warehouse and is seeking longer-term volunteer commitments.

“We are really in a transition period right now where so many of our partners are responding to the call for a low-touch or low-contact distribution, so they are really having to change the ways they interact not only with clients but also with their volunteers,” Miale said.

Chris Chela, right, and Nick DeSouza load up Ania Skrzypek’s car with 20 boxes at Wayside Food Pantry on Friday. Each box contains about 25 meals. Skrzypek is a case manager at Gateway Community Services and will deliver the food to four different families each with several children. Chela is a volunteer who, after losing his job a few weeks ago because of coronavirus, is putting in about 30 hours a week at the food pantry. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She noted that in a recent survey of its partners, 70 percent of food banks said they had seen a decline in volunteers largely because many rely heavily on older Mainers who are most at risk from COVID-19.

“At the local level, I think food pantries are in need of young, healthy volunteers who can help,” Miale said. She directed those interested to check with their local food bank for more information.

There is some good news regarding food assistance in Maine, however.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture functions in some ways as the “backbone” of food security in Maine because it primarily deals with those food staples that are in short supply.

Jason Hall, director of the emergency food assistance program with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said his program has a “healthy supply to maintain us during the crisis.” One major reason for that supply, ironically, is that U.S. farmers hare been unable to export to China because of the trade war.

Hall said Maine is also slated to get another $1 million from the coronavirus response bill recently passed by Congress, although what that money will ultimately purchase depends on what farm products are available when the funds finally arrive.

Hall’s program administers the USDA food that goes to roughly 250 local food banks and pantries around the state. Hall said managing those distributions is more challenging during the crisis, especially as local food banks – some of which he noted are “only a closet in a basement” – try to store larger quantities of food while having to change their distribution and volunteer practices.

But the surge of American-grown food because of “trade mitigation” comes at an opportune time, at least for food banks.

“We were fortunate,” Hall said. “Let’s put it that way: Three or four years ago, we didn’t have much food in the warehouse and, in a crisis, we would have had more of a challenge.”

BRACING FOR MORE

Still, Swett at the the Harrison Food Bank is bracing for even more calls from struggling families in the 62 communities they serve spread across three counties. Meanwhile, the food bank faces its own financial and logistical challenges.

While Swett was overjoyed last week to receive a deeply discounted rate on a refrigeration truck to help them keep perishable food, the food bank’s 18-year-old box truck was in the shop twice last week. And if the truck conks out, Swett said, they’ll have to quickly rent one to make the dozens of trips needed to keep pace with the growing need.

“People that don’t have any money … even if they were both working, if they are laid off and waiting for unemployment and are living week to week, they are worried about feeding their families,” Swett said.

Miale, Morrison and Swett said monetary donations are invaluable right now. And in addition to those much-needed food staples, Miale said, many local food banks are struggling to find non-food basic necessities for clients as well as the cleaning supplies that are so important to make sure their physical spaces are COVID 19-free.

“We know there are those of you out there who have been hoarding,” Miale said. “Your local food (pantry) could really use a case of toilet paper right now.”

For more information on Good Shepherd Food Bank, go to: gsfb.org
For options on how to help in your community, click here.
And for information on where to turn for help, click here.

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