Wayside Food Program’s Rachel Freedman hands off a Thanksgiving meal Nov. 25 at the organization’s headquarters on Walton Street. Wayside provided 700 precooked Thanksgiving dinners and 150 Thanksgiving baskets to those in need. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Preble Street Resource Center expects it will provide more than 1.2 million meals to those in need this year, more than doubling the number last year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased food insecurity. 

Preble Street and Wayside Food Programs don’t see the need subsiding anytime soon and have been forced to rethink how they provide meals, especially as winter – and Christmas – approaches.

“The state of our economy (will) make the holidays difficult for even more people in this community,” Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said.

Last week, rather than their usual large in-person Thanksgiving meals, the two organizations provided boxed meals.

Preble Street handed out more than 1,000 turkey dinners through its food pantry, soup kitchen and mobile food service. Each Thanksgiving box was accompanied by a handmade card from a local student.

Naila Wissa,  the community coordinator and an education technician at East End Community School loads a box of food into a car for a Portland family. Through a partnership with Wayside Food Programs, more than 200 boxes of food are delivered to Portland families every week. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

“In previous years, in addition to handing out harvest pantry boxes at our food pantry, Preble Street would host a large Thanksgiving feast at the Resource Center Soup Kitchen for hundreds of people experiencing homelessness,” Swann said. “It is no longer safe to have large crowds gather together” because of the need for physical distancing.

Preble Street distributed more than 1,000 turkeys and “reached more families than any holiday in our 45-year history,” he said.

“We’ve significantly ramped up our food production for Thanksgiving and will do so again at Christmas,” he said.

Instead of Wayside’s annual Thanksgiving feast at the Portland Club, which attracts upwards of 300 people, Wayside handed out 700 precooked Thanksgiving dinners and 150 Thanksgiving baskets.

“We are definitely doing what we can to lift people’s spirits,” Rachel Freedman, special projects and communications coordinator, said last Wednesday as she handed out Thanksgiving meals and baskets.

While the Thanksgiving services won’t necessarily be repeated for Christmas, Executive Director Mary Zwolinski, said Wayside will “try to make things a little bit more special” for those in need of food this holiday season.

Zwolinski said in most cases there is enough food to go around, but the challenge is finding ways to get that food to the people who need it.

“It’s about having the people and collaboration needed to get that food out to people,” she said.

According to Feeding America, more than 173,000 people in Maine are struggling with hunger, including close to 47,500 children. Feeding America reports, according to 2018 data, around 13% of residents across the state are food insecure, meaning they don’t have adequate access to nutritious food. Maine’s number is higher than the national average of 11.5%.

Preble Street, which closed the soup kitchen at its Resource Center in March, has increased its food pantry capabilities and is providing more than 800 meals a day for people living in area shelters or on the street, Swann said.

“Last year we provided 630,000 meals to our neighbors in need. This year it looks like we will more than double that number,” he said.

Zwolinski said Wayside began offering prepackaged takeaway meals as a replacement for the 13 community meals it has held weekly in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook. The in-person meals will likely be suspended until at least June.

The pandemic, Freedman said, has also caused Wayside Food Programs to launch a new way to get food into the hands of those who need it.

“We did a huge pivot and started an emergency food box program,” she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic Wayside Food Programs was handing out 900 boxes a week with the help of community partners, including Opportunity Alliance, Portland Public Schools and In Her Presence, to name a few. Last week, the number was closer to 400.

“It fell off at the beginning of the fall because people were back at work or were feeling it was safe to do their own shopping,” Zwolinski said. “It dropped a bit, but we are now seeing an uptick again.”

Naila Wissa,  the community coordinator and an education technician at East End Community School, said since March the emergency boxes have provided additional food to more than 200 families. According to Full Plates, Full Potential, an organization that give grants to schools to end childhood hunger, more than 80,000 students across the state rely on schools for the nutrition they need. In Portland, more than half of the roughly 6,700 student qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Wissa said the program will continue through at least this school year.

“I don’t see the need disappearing,” she said.

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