Chef Meade Aronson slid a tray of foil-wrapped sandwiches into an oven in Preble Street’s new industrial kitchen as staff members portioned beans and cheese into taco shells, and volunteers packed hundreds of brown paper lunch bags.

By 9:30 a.m. Monday, the team had already sent 500 breakfast packages out the door, bound for people staying in shelters and motels, at the YMCA and on the streets. The tacos, all 860 of them, would be delivered for dinner. Up next were 420 hot ham and cheese, and meatloaf sandwiches for lunch.

This is typical day for Preble Street’s emergency food programs, but the location is all new.

In the past three weeks, the agency has shifted kitchen work to its new Food Security Hub, the first facility of its kind in Maine focused on food insecurity. Preble Street leaders say that moving into the 30,000-square-foot building on Darling Avenue in South Portland will allow them to increase the number of meals prepared, improve nutrition and reduce waste by preserving more donated produce, and connect with anti-hunger and social justice organizations to address hunger in a more holistic and collaborative way.

“I really see this as a space for people to all come together and work on food insecurity issues as a collective community. I know when we put our resources together we can do more with them,” said Natalie Varrallo, the agency’s food programs director.

The Food Security Hub comes at a critical time in Maine, when emergency food programs report that record numbers of people have been reaching out for assistance since the start of the pandemic. Good Shepherd Food Bank, which serves a network of programs across the state, estimates that the number of people experiencing food insecurity has leapt up by 25 percent.

That increased need hasn’t necessarily shown up in national data, which lags behind real-time requests for food from local pantries and meal programs. Before the pandemic, Preble Street served 65,000 meals each month at its soup kitchen on Oxford Street. It now distributes 100,000 meals a month.

A USDA report released in September indicates that Maine’s overall rate of food insecurity has been dropping, from 13.6 percent of households between 2015 and 2017 to 11.4 percent between 2018 and 2020. Still, that’s above the national rate of 10.7 percent.

Maine has the fifth highest rate of “very low food security” in the nation, with 5.5 percent of Maine households – more than 31,000 – experiencing a more severe level of hunger that includes regularly missing meals. Nationally, 4.1 percent of households fall into that category, according to the report.

Natalie Varrallo, Preble Street’s food programs director, walks into the industrial kitchen of the Food Security Hub. She says, “I really see this as a space for people to all come together and work on food insecurity issues as a collective community.”  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine also has the highest rate of childhood hunger in New England, with about 1 in 5 children experiencing food insecurity. Nationwide, the rate of food insecurity for households with children increased from 13.6 percent in 2019 to 14.8 percent in 2020, according to the USDA.

PANDEMIC FORCED CHANGES

For 28 years before the pandemic, Preble Street operated a soup kitchen on Oxford Street, where the staff and volunteers served meals to 300 to 400 people each day. As soon as the virus arrived in Maine and stay-at-home orders were put in effect, it became clear that the soup kitchen’s congregate dining would not be safe without changes.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann brought in infectious-disease specialists for advice on how to continue serving meals to those who needed them.

“One of the experts looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’d be out of your mind to keep this place open. It’s a public health crisis in the making,’” Swann said.

Overnight, the staff turned the kitchen and dining areas into production space to make boxed meals and trays of food to deliver to local shelters. A street outreach team was formed to get food to unhoused people across the city. At the same time, the number of meals increased dramatically in response to the need in the city. For the second year in a row, Preble Street is on track to provide a million meals to people in need.

Meade Aronson, the chef of Preble Street’s industrial kitchen, organizes the hundreds of sandwiches made for lunch distribution Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It was obvious from the beginning that more space was needed to produce that quantity of food, plus plans were underway to convert the soup kitchen building into a wellness shelter. Instead of just looking for a new kitchen space, Preble Street staff decided to search out a much larger facility that would allow them to successfully operate their new model of simultaneously feeding people and working in a broader way to end hunger.

The agency is now under contract to buy the building on Darling Avenue, which WEX used as office space before the pandemic.

$8 MILLION PROJECT

Preble Street has received initial funding for the $8 million project from several organizations in Maine. The John T. Gorman Foundation, which supports opportunities that improve the lives of vulnerable people in Maine, donated $1 million, half of which is subject to a matching requirement.

“Throughout the pandemic, Preble Street and other organizations have done an incredible job of not only meeting a dramatically increased need for food assistance but also employing new ways to reach people and ease access,” Tony Cipollone, the foundation’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “This new Food Security Hub is poised to build on that momentum, making it possible to provide high-quality and culturally appropriate meals to even more people and foster collaboration among organizations working together to address this critical need.”

Other key partners in the effort include Good Shepherd Food Bank, the Hannaford Charitable Foundation, the Cumberland County Food Security Council and The Locker Project, which plans to use the new hub to provide access to healthy food at 34 public schools.

Preble Street is working to raise  $500,000 to meet the foundation’s matching challenge while also exploring other funding possibilities. Swann has talked with representatives of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree about options. He’s also reaching out to officials at the city, county and state level about the prospect of leveraging federal recovery funding.

“Everyone who we’ve talked to about this has been excited,” Swann said. “We see this as the next logical step in how we’re going to keep our community fed and have our emergency food programs organized while we treat people with dignity.”

VISIONS OF HUB’S POTENTIAL

Varrallo, who joined Preble Street last year, also is excited about the food hub’s potential. Walking through the large empty rooms in the building, she envisions space for people from different organizations and the community to gather for meetings and workshops about food insecurity.

There is room for incubator kitchens, in which staff and others could bake, make cheese and butcher meat. There will be plenty of storage space for the thousands of pounds of reclaimed food donated by grocery stores and farms each week. In the future, there will be opportunities to train people for culinary jobs.

Sage Collins, left, a volunteer, wraps up bean and cheese tacos to be distributed with Spanish rice for dinner, while Meade Aronson, the chef, organizes hundreds of sandwiches made for lunch at Preble Street’s new space in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The food processing center, outfitted with blanchers, blast freezers and dehydrators, will help staff and volunteers process and preserve donated produce and improve the nutritional value of food cooked in the kitchen. Having the proper space and equipment to handle thousands of pounds of produce at one time also will allow Preble Street to use locally sourced ingredients in the food it produces.

The goal is to increase the amount of local food used by 20 percent in the next two years, Varrallo said.

Varrallo said the kitchen staff and volunteers appreciate working in a larger space, but there is some sadness about not connecting with clients every day as they used to do at the soup kitchen. Swann recognizes the mixed emotions about leaving a downtown space where “a lot of great work happened, a lot of people’s needs were met and so many people showed up to volunteer.”

“I have a lot of feelings about that central kitchen and all the extraordinary work that happened there,” he said. “But it really is time for a change and we’re going to move ahead for the next 28 years.”


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