BAR HARBOR — Food security efforts on Mount Desert Island are getting a boost through an innovative partnership funded by a $50,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation.
The MDI Food Access Project is a collaborative effort of Open Table MDI, College of the Atlantic, Healthy Acadia and the Bar Harbor Food Pantry (BHFP) to deliver fresh produce, dry goods and prepared foods to Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor, towns that project leaders say are underserved by current food-security efforts.
“Food insecurity exists on MDI on a greater level than most people know or think about it,” said Open Table MDI cofounder Mahandeva Singh. “Now, on top of the folks that are already struggling, we’ve got a pandemic that is creating a greater need.”
The grant will fund the purchase of a delivery vehicle and cover the salary of a part-time coordinator who will work for Open Table MDI, which is overseeing the program for the next year. College of the Atlantic will provide paid interns through their academic program, while COA’s Beech Hill Farm and Healthy Acadia’s Downeast Gleaning Initiative will provide fresh produce, some of which will be processed for storage at Beech Hill Farm’s commercial kitchen. The BHFP will add produce and grocery items, while Open Table MDI will provide healthy, readymade meals as part of the weekly delivery.
The Food Access project is slated to launch this fall with weekly deliveries to the west side of MDI, and could be expanded to the Cranberry Isles, Singh said. Deliveries will take the form of groceries, produce and cooked meals that can be frozen or warmed to eat, with the aim of providing close to a week’s worth of food support for a family. Organizers anticipate serving 50-100 households per week.
“We’ve always been dealing with a transportation barrier of how to bring people to the pantry, and have been brainstorming how to bring products to them, but we just haven’t had the capacity to invest in a whole new piece of programming,” said BHFP Director Jenny Jones. “The MDI Food Access Project creates an opportunity for us to get our product to some of the pockets where we are not reaching people.”
Food insecurity is not easy to see on MDI, Jones said, and may look different than what people expect, often surfacing in two-income households struggling with seasonal employment and high housing expenses.
“Many local families often earn too much to be eligible for any government support, but are not making enough to survive the expense of where we live, and that’s a large portion of who we are serving in Hancock County,” Jones said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the pantry has seen a 27 percent increase in use, she said.
Many COA students and alumni work for food justice and seek ways to improve food access for Mainers and promote policies that address poverty and inequality, the root causes of hunger, said COA Partridge Chair in Sustainable Food Systems Dr. Kourtney Collum, so the project is a natural fit for the college.
“Part of COA’s mission has always been to strengthen and give back to the MDI community,” Collum said. “We are honored to have the opportunity to work with three of the very best organizations in our community, to strengthen our individual efforts and collaboratively help meet the needs of our neighbors.”
Singh said that while he is excited to help ramp up food security efforts this fall, he’s already trying to figure out how to keep the MDI Food Access Project going for more than the one-year period funded by the grant. Open Table MDI is 100 percent volunteer run, other than the new coordinator position, and funded largely through philanthropy, he said.
“We are so grateful to the King Foundation — they are making it possible to get this program started. And the program will need continued support to keep it afloat,” he said. “The need isn’t going to stop when this grant ends. We look forward to working in tandem with our partners to make sure this isn’t just a one-off program.”
To learn more about the MDI Food Access Project, visit opentablemdi.org/mdi-food-access-project.