SOUTHWEST HARBOR— Since March, the number of people receiving food from the Common Good Soup Kitchen has doubled while their number of volunteers has declined by about 75 percent.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were serving about 100 people in a variety of ways,” said Executive Director Laurie Ward in a conversation with the Islander on Tuesday. “Now, we’re serving about 200 people. I believe that those numbers are going to climb over the next couple of months.”
“Hunger impacts people in every corner of the country, including 180,000 people in Maine struggling with food insecurity,” a statement released last week by Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine stated. “And given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Good Shepherd Food Bank believes this number could climb to 250,000 this year.”
On Mount Desert Island, people who are experiencing food insecurity have places like the Bar Harbor Food Pantry, Open Table MDI, the Common Good Soup Kitchen and the Southwest Harbor Food Pantry to go to for food. Many of these organizations partner with Healthy Acadia, specifically with their farm gleaning program, to provide fresh produce.
“I’m hearing from a lot of our partners that they’re serving more people than ever before,” said Rachel Emus, food programs coordinator for Hancock County.
In a recent news report on Fox WVII, Bar Harbor Food Pantry Executive Director Jennifer Jones said there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of people the organization serves since March.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of folks who have not used our services before,” said Ward about people who are requesting assistance from the Common Good. “Previously our demographic was the older generation who couldn’t get out, and some families.”
There are several ways the Common Good Soup Kitchen supplies food to people in need around Mount Desert Island. On Friday afternoons, boxes of food, including soup made at their Southwest Harbor location, are delivered to homes.
“We have deliveries in every town on the island,” said Ward. “We were doing 50 to 60 home deliveries and now we are well over 100.”
On Sunday afternoons from 1-2:30 p.m., people can pick up boxes at the Common Good’s food pantry at their location next to the post office on Clark Point Road. And, before COVID-19, there were free meals offered two times a week in-house at their location.
Ward is not the only one predicting an increase in people who are food insecure over the next few months as people begin to heat their homes and have to make choices between fuel or food.
Open Table MDI also saw an increase in people after the initial shock of the pandemic in March. Before COVID-19 put an end to public gatherings for a few months, the organization typically served about 220 people each week for their sit-down dinners at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church. Once the pandemic hit, they shifted to a delivery- and pickup-only model and saw a decrease in their numbers for a couple of weeks and then it shifted to a higher number of people than before.
“After that downturn, we were routinely doing about 315 meals every Tuesday,” said co-founder Puranjot Kaur on Tuesday in a conversation with the Islander. “We added a second supper as well on Saturdays (and were serving) around 220-230 meals. That number of 315 on a Tuesday had stayed pretty consistent.”
After a couple of months of offering a second dinner during the week, Kaur said they decided to scale back to save their resources for the fall in preparation of people experiencing a very different summer season than in the past and the possibility of the need for services increasing.
“I do believe we are going to see another 25 percent increase in the next two months,” said Ward. “If we get the need I’m forecasting, we’ll need to add an additional day of cooking and will need all the volunteers we can get.”
Open Table MDI is ramping up as well with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation that will be focused on the MDI Food Access Project. They will be partnering with College of the Atlantic’s Beech Hill Farm, Bar Harbor Food Pantry and Healthy Acadia to deliver dry goods, fresh produce and healthy prepared foods to areas of Mount Desert Island underserved by local food-security organizations. Funds from the grant will allow them to purchase a vehicle to deliver more meals around the MDI, to the Cranberry Isles and in Trenton and to hire their first employee to help coordinate the organizations’ efforts.
“It may not get them through the whole week, but it may get them through a good chunk of the week,” said Kaur who began Open Table MDI in Feb. 2018 with her husband. “The first supper we did we had maybe 40 to 50 people there. It didn’t take long before we were quickly in the 100s and then in the 200s… regardless of the time of year.”
This summer, Trenton Elementary School teacher Snow Ross discovered a need for food services in town when she decided to offer produce grown in the school’s greenhouse on a public town social media site.
“It would be spoken for in less than 30 minutes,” said Ross who was putting together bags of produce for families who sent her a private message requesting it. “Every time we’ve done it, we’ve probably reached 20 families, minimum, and it’s only grown.”
“It started out with just the produce in our greenhouse,” she added. “But then we weren’t really making enough.”
Jones, from the Bar Harbor Food Pantry, recognized that Ross was unable to keep up with the demand in the community and offered to add fresh produce from Healthy Acadia’s gleaning program. On Wednesday afternoons, beginning at 2 p.m., produce is set out on a stand at the school and is available for pick up until dark or it is all gone. It often is gone well before the sun sets, according to Ross.
“It’s obvious there’s a need,” said Ross, who heard from people who had lost their jobs and were grateful to have fresh produce. “It has been unbelievable. I’m so happy (it is going to people who need it). I can’t tell you the incredible notes I’ve gotten privately.”
When students began schooling from home in the spring, schools worked to continue providing meals that had been available on campus either through the school or collaborating with restaurants on the island. Many of those services were discontinued through the later summer months. Now that school is back in session, students are again receiving meals from their school. Ward expressed concern about children in food insecure families if the schools are unable to stay open this fall in the case of community spread.
An email recently sent out by Barb Nielly to families of Conners Emerson School students stated that the federal government had waived the free and reduced lunch qualifications for families and that all children ages 0-18 would receive food free of charge through the end of this year.
Even with that reassurance for children, it is likely more families will be struggling to access healthy food through the winter season.
“We definitely want to have something in place going into the winter season,” said Kaur. “I think it will be very interesting to see what happens.”