Randy Olsen, co-founder of Maine Meals Assistance, loads up deliveries of home-cooked meals he distributes to the needy. The new organization has amassed dozens of volunteers covering communities from Eliot to Belfast. Courtesy / Kristen Harris

SOUTH PORTLAND — An effort by two area residents who wanted to help feed the hungry has evolved into a network of dozens of cooks, food donors and drivers preparing and delivering homemade food throughout at least six Maine counties.

The program has expanded to include a new team that just started serving South Portland last week.

Volunteers have been cooking and delivering meals for Maine Meal Assistance since this spring, but the network started as a Facebook group created by Randy Olsen, of Westbrook, and Kristen Harris, of Scarborough, back in September. The Facebook group has amassed so many members – 620 recipients and volunteers so far – that Olsen said he has to keep the group private, meaning people can view, but not post, to avoid being overwhelmed.

Many of the cooks, Olsen and Harris said, are former chefs, producing restaurant-quality meals and items ranging from soups to desserts. Maine Meal Assistance is now delivering more than 300 meals per week, and both Olsen and Harris said they think that number will grow.

Kristen Harris, co-founder of Maine Meal Assistance, stands in front of a chest freezer containing frozen home-cooked meals she is helping distribute to the needy. Courtesy / Kristen Harris

It started in July, when both the network’s founders, who had never met, first communicated through Coronavirus Community Assistance, a Facebook page that sprang up earlier this year in response to the pandemic.

“We could see a lot of people who were food insecure,” Harris said.

Harris, a sales manager for Midwestern Pet Foods, said she travels across the state for her job, and wondered if she could deliver meals to people who needed them at the same time. Olsen, a newspaper and magazine delivery contractor, agreed to help prepare and deliver meals, but gave Harris the credit for the initial food deliveries.

“She’s got the biggest cooler I’ve ever seen,” Olsen said.

Harris said it didn’t take long before friends and other contacts through Facebook began offering to help.

“It just kept on growing and growing,” she said.

Olsen and Harris said the Facebook group serves as the hub for volunteers, with 115 cooks preparing about 325 meals per week. Every other Sunday, Olsen said, Maine Meal Assistance gets deliveries of food donated from businesses and food pantries in the area.

“Just last Sunday, we must have had hundreds of pounds of food,” Olsen said.

Olsen and Harris said the volunteers come from and serve communities as far south as Eliot and as far north as Belfast, and the network is growing. Just last week a new team in South Portland got to work, led by Sari Greene, the founder of South Portland Community of Kindness, another Facebook group with 2,000 members. All offered to help with tasks ranging from food delivery to shoveling snow.

Greene said she heard what Maine Meal Assistance was doing, and mobilized her group to help.

“I put one post on the Community of Kindness page and within two days, we had 33 cooks,” Greene said.

Home-cooked meals prepared by SoPo Cooks, a team in South Portland delivering meals to the needy in the greater Portland area for Maine Meals Assistance, a new nonprofit network helping to feed the hungry. Courtesy / Kristen Harris

Greene said the local team, which she has nicknamed “SoPo Cooks,” is also made up of drivers and donors offering food to the cooks. Just last week, Greene said, her team delivered meals to 17 households alone.

“I definitely would expect that (number) to rise,” she said.

Melanie Thomas, 47, a disabled single mom living in subsidized housing in Cape Elizabeth, said she and her family have enjoyed soups, meatloaf, lasagna and other homemade food, thanks to the network.

She called the deliveries, which she receives once a week, “just a home-cooked meal, and there’s love in it.” She added the meals often come with handwritten notes, complete with smiley faces, that provides more than just hot food.

“Sometimes we all need that,” she said. “It’s something to look forward to.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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