The South Portland Food Cupboard, at 130 Thadeus St., is not on a public bus route. On June 9, the South Portland City Council and Dwayne Hopkins, director of the food cupboard, said that the city would work on making the food cupboard more accessible for recipients who don’t have reliable transportation. Catherine Bart/Sentry

SOUTH PORTLAND — Without immediate access to public transportation, the South Portland Food Cupboard director says its recipients have a difficult time getting to its Thadeus Street location.

On June 9, the South Portland City Council discussed the difficulty recipients of the South Portland Food Cupboard who do not have reliable transportation face when trying to access the facility on 130 Thadeus St.

Dwayne Hopkins, director of the South Portland Food Cupboard, a nonprofit, said that the facility had originally been located at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, at 611 Main St, which was on a bus route.

“When we moved from St. Johns to Thadeus we saw a dramatic decrease in recipient population just simply because we moved off a bus route to a non-bus route area,” Hopkins said. “Working with the transportation department, it’s impossible to get public transportation in there.”

During the food cupboard’s operating hours, cars are parked along both sides of Thadeus Street, Hopkins said.

Thadeus Street would not have room for a public bus, City Manager Scott Morelli and Dwayne Hopkins, director of the South Portland Food Cupboard, said. Catherine Bart/Sentry

The city’s general assistance program relies on the food cupboard, Kathleen Babeu, director of social services, said. Babeu was present during the food cupboard’s days at St. John’s and said that had been a much more convenient location.

Food cupboard recipients can take the public bus to Broadway, walk down Strout Street and Thadeus Street, but there is a hill that could be challenging for some, especially those carrying bags of groceries, Babeu said.

“The problem I see is that many of our residents — whether they’re asylum seekers, they’ve lived in South Portland for a dozen years, or they’re senior citizens — if they don’t have a vehicle or if they don’t have someone who they can rely on for transportation, it’s very difficult for them to be able to enjoy the food cupboard, to be able to receive the groceries that they are in need of, and to be able to get back to their homes,” she said.

Recipients of the South Portland Food Cupboard who rely on public transportation would need to walk up and down a hill in order to get to the food cupboard, Kathleen Babeu, social services director, said.

Besides public transportation, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major factor in the decrease of senior recipients visiting the food cupboard, Babeu said.

In the past three years, about 360 seniors over the age of 60 had visited the food cupboard, but from January to June of 2020, about 40 senior adults have used the facility, Hopkins said.

“I want to work with councilor Henderson and the city of South Portland on meeting that need for senior adults,” Hopkins said.

Now more than ever, residents need easy access to food, councilor Susan Henderson, who had brought the issue forward to the city council, said.

“With the COVID-19 issue and so many more people needing to use the food cupboard, this has been a much more acute problem, and we’re looking at things being moved around in the city so it seems like this is the right time to consider getting a new home for our food cupboard,” she said.

When City Manager Scott Morelli had previously discussed moving the food pantry to a public building, he said that recognized space may be an issue.

“We could not find any (facilities) that did not have an active use, the community center, high school gym, the Redbank gym — None of those were appropriate and already had other uses,” Morelli said. “The only thing we could come to was the Hamlin Gym.”

Unfortunately, one of the biggest issues with the Hamlin School Gym, on 496 Ocean St, is that the space is about 2,500-square-feet, Morelli said.

The facility on Thadeus street has about 4,000-square-feet, Hopkins said.

Mayor Katherine Lewis added that she felt the Hamlin School Gym wasn’t the most convenient location for the food cupboard. In the next couple of years, using the Mahoney Middle School building as a “central hub” that includes the food cupboard would be an idea that she supports.

As a “Band-Aid fix,” it has been suggested that once a week or a couple of times a month, the food cupboard could move supplies to the Hamlin School Gym — which is on a bus route — and allow people who rely on public transportation to receive groceries and get back home in a more convenient way, he said.

Councilor April Caricchio suggested that a smaller shuttle bus could also transport food cupboard recipients to the location on Thadeus Street. The cupboard could also find a church or similar spot that would have space to rent out.

Henderson said that the ease of getting to the food cupboard is part of a larger vision that she has for the city.

“I think that having our food cupboard be accessible to our citizens is just really critical and the kind of city we are valuing all our citizens — it’s important to have it in a place people can get there easier,” she said. “It’s possible to move it one day a week, but I think that’s hard.”

The city council and city departments will continue the conversation and look at alternative solutions, Lewis and Morelli said.

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