The cultural and political fault lines of 2022 America are nothing new to Hancock County, Maine.

“In 2021, Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Ellsworth saw 2,850 family visits, feeding more than 7,000 individuals; this year, we reached that point by July,” Andy Matthews writes. Candle photo/

Haves and have-nots, local people and summer people “from away,” the secular and the spiritual, red and blue. All exist cheek by jowl in this part of the coast we call Down East, where the economic and social divides are often stark and the distances are growing.

These divisions weren’t as evident in 1978, when Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry was founded in Ellsworth by the Rev. Peter Gorham and the Rev. Jack Maxim from, respectively, St. Joseph Catholic Church and St. Andrew Lutheran Church. In those far-off times, the pantry operated from a church basement. Eventually, we acquired our own space on the grounds of the Unitarian Universalist Church and developed a more comprehensive program, providing groceries and basic necessities to all who need them. That work continues today.

Unfortunately, food insecurity has continued to rise since our founding. In 2021, the pantry saw 2,850 family visits, feeding more than 7,000 individuals; this year, we reached that point by July. The reasons are many and complex, but the reality is clear: While local families are working full time, they’re struggling to make ends meet in the face of fierce economic headwinds. It seems the needs of our friends and neighbors increase every day.

The pantry relies on a large cadre of volunteers and is currently open just three mornings and one evening a week. We recently expanded to allow two family visits a month instead of one. For many, it was still not enough. With hunger on the rise, we realized we needed to do more. Our goal was to remove the limits on family visits and food quantities and to do it we knew we needed a more suitable space. Since our previous fundraising efforts were confined to a hope and a prayer, we had to start from square one. So we rolled up our sleeves.

The Brunswick-based Genesis Community Loan Fund, an innovative nonprofit that helps find financing for other nonprofits, provided a $550,000 loan to buy a vacant building that, once renovated, would become our future home. Local businesses, grantors, volunteers and donors from near and far quickly rallied round. When we announced our plans, a phone call from a complete stranger yielded $100,000. At the new site, volunteers planted community gardens, put down flooring and painted ceilings, providing hundreds of hours of sweat equity. What we thought would be a three-year capital campaign has nearly been accomplished in just eight months.

The volunteers and donors who are making all this happen are young and old, rich and poor, red and blue, devout and atheist, Prius drivers and F150 fans. We may be divided in many ways, but we are still a strong community. We see each other at the supermarket, at church, at Rotary meetings, pancake breakfasts and the local brewpub. We complain about the tourists clogging our roads, commiserate about the disappointing state of the Red Sox and look forward to the glorious month between Labor Day and leaf peeping when we have our state to ourselves.

We look out for each other and, united in a great endeavor to end hunger in Hancock County, our divisions cease to matter. We are an American community doing an American thing: Lending our neighbors a helping hand. Our community is by no means unique in its generosity and commitment to each other. In cities and towns across the country, people are pitching in and making a difference. And that is why we have hope.

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