Workers at the South Portland Food Cupboard prepare a recent distribution of food to the needy. The nonprofit food bank helps about 60 families a week between walk-in service and limited deliveries, but a lack of public transportation access means at least 100 more families can’t get to the food. Courtesy South Portland Food Cupboard

SOUTH PORTLAND — A local food bank that has been unable to reach some needy recipients due to a longtime access problem is getting a new promise of help from the city, thanks to concerns aired by local advisory groups and the efforts of a city councilor.

The Food Cupboard, an independent nonprofit that has become something of a local institution, has been at its 130 Thadeus St. location since 2014. It is not facing a dire shortage of food products, has the help of many volunteers and even operates in a clean building with more than enough space.

The problem is the street where the Food Cupboard is located. City officials can’t send a municipal bus line down Thadeus Street since it is so narrow buses can’t safely negotiate the turns on to and off it. As a result, at least 100 families who would only be able to get to the food bank by bus can’t get the help they need to feed themselves, according to the Food Cupboard’s director, Dwayne Hopkins.

“People who depend on public transportation really can’t get to us,” he said.

Hopkins said the Food Cupboard moved out of St. John’s Catholic Church on Main Street in 2014, when the church decided to close the parish. The Food Cupboard, Hopkins said, had never paid rent before and had no organized fundraising at the time. That, combined with three weeks’ notice given by the church made for a rushed move, he said, so the street access problem was overlooked at the time.

In all, he said, the Food Cupboard today serves an average of 60 families a week between walk-in service and limited deliveries, but the lack of public transportation access remains a problem.

“If they don’t have transportation the question is, how do they get the food?” he said.

City Councilor Susan Henderson said she gradually became more aware of the potential impact such a lack of transportation access can have. She is a nonvoting member of the Ad-hoc Senior Advisory Steering Committee, a local group made of up interested citizens, local business owners and civic leaders. In a survey the committee conducted about three years ago that examined many issues affecting seniors in the city, data showed a correlation between transportation and food security issues.

“That was a consciousness-raising thing for us,” Henderson said.

The matter grew even more important, she said, when the Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee, another citizens’ advisory group of which she is a nonvoting member, came to similar conclusions about younger people in need. Over time, Henderson said, these and similar arguments began to gel, making the overall problem more visible. The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic hardships have meant the Food Cupboard’s access issue has become impossible to ignore.

“People are short of money and are going to be using the Food Cupboard a lot more,” she said.

So the City Council, at Henderson’s request, gathered Hopkins and various city officials together for a workshop session at the end of the council’s regular June 9 meeting to see what could be done.

Deputy City Manager Joshua Reny said two options emerged from the discussion: Either the city could institute a transit system using smaller vehicles, such as a van-based shuttle service, or the Food Cupboard could move to a city-owned, more transit-friendly location.

Reny said city officials are still looking into just what either option would involve, with plans to report back to the council at a later date. Naturally, Reny said, a shuttle service would potentially be expensive and it’s not clear yet how that could be paid for.

“That obviously carries some overhead with it,” he said.

The most likely city-owned location for the Food Cupboard, Reny said, would be the former Hamlin School. It has space available and likely for a similar rent the Food Cupboard is paying now, but Reny noted it was built as a school, so it lacks certain amenities, such as a loading dock, that the Food Cupboard needs.

“They really need a space that’s designed for the operation of a food pantry,” he said.

The bottom line, Reny said, is that both options at first glance seem doable, but at best it would be a temporary solution. The best long-term solution, he said, is for the Food Cupboard to find a more suitable permanent home. He said city officials will offer to help Hopkins and the Food Cupboard regardless of what temporary solution the city comes up with.

“We can and should be having that conversation,” he said.

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