The South Portland Food Cupboard van during the “Neighbors Helping Neighbors Celebration Parade” on April 18.

SOUTH PORTLAND — After receiving an outpouring of support from the community, the South Portland Food Cupboard celebrated the success of “Battle of the Neighborhoods” with a city-wide parade on April 18.

Neighbors were helping one another this winter after Jim Welch, warehouse manager, developed an idea to have neighborhoods compete to see who could donate the most canned goods. The competition lasted four weeks, with Sunset Park collecting the most food, nearly 5,000 pounds, out of the 15 neighborhoods.

“We were getting so low on miscellaneous food and canned goods,” Welch said. “You can have the five staples, but what we missed and our recipients missed were things like canned asparagus, canned potatoes. We love our miscellaneous goods because so many people donate that stuff and we put it out for them. They can go and pick out what they like. That way nothing goes to waste when people pick what they like.”

At first, Welch said, he hoped the Battle of the Neighborhoods event would manage to collect 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of food. The community brought in over 21,000 pounds by the end.

“It just took off like a rocket,” Welch said. “The first week we had the 4,000 to 5,000 pounds. and then for each of the four weeks we kept going 4,000 to 5,000 thousand pounds every week. All of a sudden I had 440 banana boxes of food.”

The food cupboard will go through 10 to 15 tons of food every week, he said.

Although Sunset Park was the winner, Willard Beach, the runner-up, was the neighborhood that helped get momentum going through the competition, Welch said.

“Willard Beach lit the fire under everyone else,” he said. “When we started, they jumped right out in front and we posted about it, and it lit a fire under everyone else.”

Laurel LaBauve, board vice president of the food cupboard, said many residents and organizations hosted their own food drives to support the event.

“It was just unbelievable and it was so much fun,” she said. “This winter with COVID, it wasn’t a very fun winter, so it was nice to have people come in, laughing and joking, bringing in all of their products. It just made a huge difference to the food pantry and our ability to support all of the folks who need food right now for sure.”

Many of the donors would poke fun at other neighborhoods when bringing collected goods to the pantry, Welch said.

“Even the 85-, 86-year-olds were talking trash,” he said. “It was just a riot and so much fun. We were really blessed. The city did such a tremendous job. I had such a good time.”

South Portland residents on the sidelines during the South Portland Food Cupboard’s parade in celebration of “Battle of the Neighborhoods” on April 18. The community managed to collect roughly 21,000 pounds of food for the food cupboard. Courtesy photo Laurel LaBauve

After the competition ended, there was a need for celebration, LaBauve said.

“When it was over it seemed like almost a letdown because it had been so much fun and such a big deal, so we thought ‘Let’s have this parade and celebrate,’ try to go through as much of the city as we could to recognize the neighborhoods that really had done a great job with it,” she said. “We contacted the city of South Portland and we had a little meeting with them with the fire department and the police department and their COVID safety team and they said, ‘Yeah sure we can support this.'”

Welch, who drove the food cupboard’s van through the parade route, said the experience was humbling as he rode through the streets and  saw so many people cheering.

“So many people were in their windows and in their doors waving,” he said. “It was just a humbling experience.”

The South Portland Fire Department also participated in the “Neighbors Helping Neighbors Celebration Parade” on April 18. Courtesy photo Laurel LaBauve

Some of the biggest donations came from the smallest South Portland neighborhoods, said LaBauve. The amount of support and friendly competition made an impact on the food cupboard.

“I think asking for help was probably a good thing,” she said. “We definitely could have spent some money to buy some canned goods, but the more that we spend, the less we can help others. So reaching out and asking for donations and seeing such an outpouring of love and support from the community was something I think we really did learn.”

Kevin Conroy, board member of the South Portland Food Cupboard, (Left) and Jim Welch, warehouse manager for the food cupboard. Catherine Bart photo

The South Portland Food Cupboard, located on 130 Thaddeus St., has 5,000 square feet of space, which includes an outdoor tent that allows for the volunteers and recipients to operate in COVID-19 guidelines, Welch said.

LaBauve said the food cupboard has about 130 volunteers and two staff members.

“We’ve got volunteer opportunities every morning of every week, and the first Wednesday of every month we do an evening food distribution for folks who can’t volunteer in the morning,” she said. “We train people on-site so you don’t need any special skill, but we absolutely love having new volunteers.”

Having been with the South Portland Food Cupboard for the last seven years, Welch most enjoys working with the people, he said.

“They all have experiences and they all have stories and it’s just incredible,” he said. “Somebody will goof up something and the laughter is just infectious. That’s what I love most about this place.”

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