Birch Shambaugh, owner of Woodford Food & Beverage, delivers burgers to the staff at Portland’s Barron Center on Wednesday. Shambaugh has been delivering meals to front-line health care workers as part of the Feeding the Frontline campaign throughout much of the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As the coronavirus pandemic became a national emergency last March, the Feeding the Frontline initiative was born in a small Boston restaurant called Penquin Pizza. Local restaurants provided meals – paid for through donations – to workers on the front line of the pandemic, while also receiving badly-needed funds to keep afloat.

It became a national grassroots initiative and took root here in Maine. Portland restaurants such as Woodford Food & Beverage, Luke’s Lobster and Solo Italiano were sending meals throughout southern Maine to hospitals, fire stations, police stations, nursing homes and homeless shelters.

Over the summer, with Maine experiencing low numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitals having few patients, the need for Feeding the Frontline in Maine quieted. But now, with COVID-19 cases surging – the rolling seven-day daily average is now 432, up from 73 cases per day for the week ending Nov. 1 – local hospitals are being overwhelmed. And some local restaurants have renewed their efforts.

“Obviously we all hoped that this wouldn’t go in the direction it has gone in, but we suspected it would, and here we are again,” said Birch Shambaugh, the co-owner, along with his wife, Fayth Preyer, of Woodford F&B on Forest Avenue. “It’s an unfortunate truth and reality … The withering pressure that the front-line workers are under in hospitals is profound and perhaps a closer representation of what we feared would materialize in the spring but didn’t.”

As he did in the spring, Shambaugh offers a package of five cheeseburgers for $100. Tuesday afternoon, he delivered a package of 20 cheeseburgers to the Barron Center, a nursing home and rehabilitation facility on Brighton Avenue in Portland. So far in December, he has delivered 125 meals – including trips to Maine Medical Center and Hospice of Southern Maine – with another 20 coming this weekend.

From last March into mid-June, Shambaugh said he delivered over 750 Feeding the Frontline meals, most the result of customer donations.

“He says this is just a little thing he does,” said Ruth Shear, the assistant director of nursing at the Barron Center, who greeted Shambaugh on Tuesday. “It’s not a little thing. It’s so important to (the staff). It makes such a difference to know that they’re recognized by the community. They’re having a tough time.

“But something like this really, really gives them a boost.”

Birch Shambaugh has delivered 125 meals this month, with another 20 coming this weekend. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Shambaugh said that while hospitals and other first responders certainly deserve the attention, so do facilities like the Barron Center, which serve a very vulnerable population.

“They deserve our support too,” said Shambaugh. “It’s good to come together and let them know they’re not forgotten.”

Other local restaurants are also continuing to promote Feeding the Frontline. Luke’s Lobster in Portland offers a package of two do-it-yourself lobster roll kits for $30. LB Kitchen on Congress Street, closed until New Year’s Day, has an online option for a $10 donation that will provide a prepared meal to a staff member at Maine Medical Center.

Solo Italiano in Portland, which provides five lasagna dinners for $100, still occasionally sends dinners to Maine Medical Center. But, said general manager Jesse Bania, those meals are now generally ordered by hospital officials and not paid for by customer donations to Feeding the Frontline.

Anyone who wants to contribute to Feeding the Frontline should contact Solo Italiano directly rather than use the online option, said Bania. Those meals could end up at local food banks or shelters, such as the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland. “There are a lot of folks struggling out there,” said Bania. “And something as simple as food is a big essential need for them.”

Rosemont Market no longer takes donations for Feeding the Frontline but has partnered with Maine Medical Center to provide lunches (with locally sourced foods) which the hospital pays for.

Shambaugh said he sent out his last order of cheeseburgers in July, then got back to the business of trying to run his restaurant. Right around Thanksgiving, he began getting unsolicited phone calls from customers asking him if he was still offering the package deal.

“I think the timing of it is reflective of the season,” said Shambaugh. “Obviously the majority of people are strapped and strained in one form or the other. A lot are accustomed to holiday dining, things they are not able to do this year because of the current scenario. So they look for small ways to make beneficial impacts in the world around them.”

Among them were Bill Moore and his wife, Ann MacLauchlin, who supported Feeding the Frontline last spring with two donations and have once again.

“We’re not Bill and Melinda Gates, we don’t have a ton of money to give to things,” said Moore. “We tend to give to things we care about. After the pandemic hit, we realized we needed to add something. And a big thing for us was local businesses. We try to pay attention to our local restaurants, places we can walk to. There are a couple within walking distance and one of the biggest ones is Woodford.

“For me, we started thinking about how we could support it. Then Birch added this so we’re not only supporting his restaurant, but also supporting the community.”

Birch Shambaugh, owner of Woodford Food & Beverage, hands over a delivery of burgers to Barron Center receptionist Nancy Greenwald on Wednesday. The need for Feeding the Frontline in Maine has surged along with the state’s COVID-19 case numbers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“From the very beginning,” said MacLauchlin, “it wasn’t just about his restaurant. It was about his employees and the community as a whole. How do you not respect that? It seems from day one, he’s been out there helping everyone. It wasn’t just about keeping open the restaurant. He’s never lost sight of (the greater community). And I think that’s what makes him and Fayth so unusual.”

Keeping the restaurant open is important, of course. Shambaugh said it has been 290 days since he’s been able to open his dining room. “But who’s counting?” he said.

Feeding the Frontline, he added, not only “helps keep the lights on and the heartbeat going here,” but “perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the community.”

Shambaugh said he and his wife know a lot of people who work at Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospital, people who live in their neighborhood and frequent their restaurant.

“They’re in the thick of it,” he said. “And this is important and meaningful to those receiving it.”

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