Local chef Ali Waks Adams prepares squash, which she likened to “renaissance pumpkins” for the first dinner in a series of three for Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s annual harvest dinner. Courtesy of Alyssa Schoppee

BRUNSWICK — Tasked with planning Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s annual harvest dinner in the midst of a global pandemic, board member and local chef Ali Waks Adams wanted to replicate the sense of community created by sitting down to a meal together. 

Unable to gather due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, she looked to her experience hosting weekly pop-up dinners elsewhere in town. 

If everyone picked up the same meal, brought it back and ate it around the same time, some of that feeling could still be captured this year, she thought. 

So, she got to work, brainstorming a menu for 100 people that would be fresh, local and comforting. 

The harvest dinner, traditionally hosted at Frontier, is an annual fundraiser for Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in the late fall to both celebrate the end of a busy season and take a deep breath before the start of the winter months, said Alyssa Schoppee, development manager.

Patrons pay for a high-end, three-course meal and enjoy live music and good company, simultaneously raising money to help the organization “as we head into the winter months, which are always a really tough time for the families that we serve,” she said. 

Nationally, the food insecurity rate is 11.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Last month, the Portland Press Herald reported that in Maine, 13.6 percent of households are food-insecure, the highest rate in New England. Feeding America estimated this year that 173,080 people in Maine are struggling with hunger, including 47,460 children.

That means 1 in 8 Mainers and 1 in 5 Maine children are food-insecure, according to the Press Herald. 

In Brunswick, food pantry visits have been holding fairly steady over the last several months, but Alyssa Schoppee, program development manager, said officials anticipate “the potential of a significant increase as CARES act extra benefits are exhausted.” 

In July through September of this year there were 2,353 visits to the food bank and 17,745 meals served at the soup kitchen, compared to 2,346 visits and 9,877 meals over the same period of time last year. The big jump in meals, according to Schoppee, is due to people receiving additional grab-bags of meals to take home when they visit the soup kitchen

“There’s a new segment of our community who are experiencing job loss for the first time,” Schoppee said. The organization also offers programming for children, and when schools suddenly shut down in the spring and most kids only went back part-time for hybrid models, there are a lot of children who are “a little more unsure of where they’re mels might be coming from,” she said, especially in families who might be experiencing that job loss. 

“Those two communities have been really impacted,” Schoppee said, as have older adults who are assisted through the pantry to pantry program, which provides grocery boxes to people who are homebound or unable to get to the grocery store. Now, that issue has been compacted by the pandemic, she said, only making it more important to get food to people who might be afraid to leave their homes or risk getting the virus. 

“There’s a heightened sense of worry and stress going on in the world,” she said, and even though Mid Coast Hunger has had to change the way the clients are being served, she said it’s just as much a part of the mission as before to make sure people feel heard, get what they need, and are treated fairly and well. 

When the pandemic “first started rearing its head” in March, the organization pivoted to a pick-up only service overnight which has stayed in place over the summer and will continue throughout the winter. 

Officials have been able to implement some changes, like a new porch area for take-out meals, which Schoppee said, will be where people pick up their harvest dinners. 

“It gives folks a glimpse into what our clients are experiencing every day,” she said. “It’s kind of a poignant reminder of how difficult it is for the folks that we serve right now.” 

That loss of communal dining is something Waks Adams, who also volunteers, sorely misses.

A pork chop stuffed with roasted pears, cornbread and sausage served over sweet potato puree and local greens, boxed for the first of three harvest dinners hosted by Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program. Courtesy of Ali Waks Adams

“One of the things that (Mid Coast Hunger) provides is that sense that there are people who are looking out for you,” she said. “That whole cycle of poverty can be so isolating, and Mid Coast is this beautiful heart… it’s a special place.” 

Waks Adams, Schoppee and everyone else at the organization are preparing for what lies ahead.

“We anticipate it will be harder this winter,” Schoppee said. “We’re heading into what has always been the toughest season for our clients and it’s compounded by the issues around the pandemic. We’re preparing to meet the increase if that need arises,” she said. 

This year, due to gathering and safety restrictions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program is hosting its annual harvest dinner as a pop-up chef series instead, inspired by Waks Adams’ weekly Willie and Chet’s pop-ups at Brunswick’s Dog Bar Jim. 

The first pop up kicked off Friday, with a sold-out meal prepared by Waks Adams and dessert by Sanctuary Baking. The second, a dinner and dessert prepared by Chef Chris Toy and Sanctuary Baking, will follow Nov. 13, and the third, the chef for which has not been announced, will be Dec. 4. As always, proceeds from this series will benefit the organization’s efforts to feed local families and minimize food insecurity in the area. 

Friday, Waks Adams served a two-course meal, starting with local greens with beets, apples, and goat cheese, followed by a choice of pork chop stuffed with roasted pears, cornbread and sausage served over sweet potato puree and local greens, or a maple miso roasted winter squash with farro, hazelnuts and local greens. The dessert add-on was a sweet potato cheesecake with a ginger-thins crust from Sanctuary Baking. 

The second iteration of the dinner will be prepared by Chef Chris Toy, and will start off with roasted seasonal vegetables caramelized in balsamic reduction. For the second course, diners will have a choice between garlic ginger sesame roasted chicken served over vegetable fried rice, or roasted peppers stuffed with herbed whipped potatoes, also served over vegetable fried rice. The add-on dessert, again from Sanctuary Baking, has not been announced.  

Dinners are $35 for one without any add-ons.

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