Food aid grows to meet demand
T wo months ago, as residents of the Bath area lined up outside Grace Episcopal Church to fill bags of free groceries from a mobile food truck, organizer Kimberly Gates prayed that she would find funding for even one more truck.
Watching members of 297 families fill boxes and laundry baskets with fresh vegetables, meat and other staples, Gates said, “We pray that the money comes through, and if it doesn’t, we won’t have a truck.” Thanks to many donors, however — a few who individually offered to fund an entire truck — the mobile food trucks will head to Washington Street on the last Tuesday of every month, at least through May 2012, according to the Rev. Michael Ambler, rector at Grace Episcopal Church.
Meeting a need
Three years ago, Gates arranged to have a truck from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn arrive once a month at the Grace Episcopal Church to provide food for Bath area residents in need.
For the first two years, Gates paid for the truckloads of food with grants and donations, but both ceased this year, so Gates turned to her church.
“They didn’t blink an eye,” she said, explaining that church members and anonymous donors funded several trucks.
But then, in September, Gates told The Times Record that she was nearly out of money.
Once again, her prayers were answered, her faith organizations such as Grace Episcopal can buy 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of food for $1,000.
“We initially committed as a congregation to fund three months,” Ambler said Monday. “We wanted to continue through the end of this calendar year, and we basically went on faith that we would find the funds. And funding has poured in from all sorts of places.”
But other news in the local battle against hunger is not as encouraging.
Earlier this week, the Bath Area Food Bank handed out about 50 Thanksgiving boxes, board member Judy Weisman said Tuesday. That number — like the number of meals served at the soup kitchen and the number of clients served at the food pantry — is up this year.
But one important number is down: donations. The food pantry has taken in about $20,000 less than it had at this time last year, according to Weisman, despite increased expenses, with December still to come.
“I don’t think we’re going to break even this year,” she said.
The food bank, which operates a pantry at Bath United Church of Christ and a soup kitchen at First Baptist Church, is supported by 11 area churches and, in part, through the Food Security Coalition at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, funded partially by United Way of Mid Coast Maine.
This is not the first year the food pantry won’t meet expenses — although it did in 2010. But since the beginning of 2011, Weisman said, “Donations seem to be really down.”
While the pantry is struggling financially, Weisman noted, “A lot of organizations do fundraisers and food drives for us,” she said, “so we’re doing OK.”
She said representatives of the Bath-area churches that make up the food pantry’s board of directors “really do want to have it remain a faithbased organization.”
Hunger is pervasive, across the country and in Maine.
According to a 2010 study by Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, nearly 200,000 Mainers — including 68,950 children — struggle with “food insecurity,” meaning they are “unable to consistently access the adequate amount of nutritious food necessary for a healthy life.”
Nearly 19 percent of Maine’s population — 252,223 people — relies on food stamps, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report determined.
Recognizing the hard times facing so many Mid- coast area families, Midcoast Pizza & More owner Nick Papadopoulos will hold a free traditional Thanksgiving dinner at his Washington Street eatery on Thursday for the first time in years.
After similar events during the late 1990s, Papadopoulos stopped the yearly event, he said Tuesday, “Because there wasn’t really a demand. But now with the economy the way it is, I think there is more demand, more need.”
So Papadopoulos and his staff will prepare about 150 dinners, including “squash, mashed potatoes, vegetables, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and of course a turkey. And pumpkin pie.”
Midcoast Pizza & More will serve the holiday meal from noon to 2 p. m. It’s open to everyone, he said, at no cost. But a jar at the door will collect donations for the Bath Area Food Bank.
“I’ve gotten phone calls saying, ‘Can we come and pay?’ I say, ‘You can come, but all the donations are not going to me. I don’t want anything,’” he said.
This year, Papadopoulos said, food banks everywhere are seeing increased need.
As the Bath Area Food Bank struggles to meet the needs of its communities, Gates continues to seek grants for additional funding for the mobile food trucks.
The next truck is scheduled for Tuesday, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., again in the parking lot behind Grace Episcopal Church. During the cold, winter months, those waiting in line will be welcomed into the church’s parish hall to enjoy hot coffee, tea and pastries, “and we will also have people on hand to help with food stamp applications, free lunch applications and, hopefully, legal advice,” Gates wrote in an email to The Times Record.
The last truck of the year will arrive on Dec. 27, Gates wrote — “with more to follow.”
Ambler and Gates said they are “deeply grateful” to all who have donated to the food trucks, noting, “Twenty dollars from someone who is struggling is at least as big a gift as $1,000 from someone who has money to spare.”
“We hope to keep it going … permanently, if we possibly can,” Ambler said.
He encouraged those seeking to help feed others during the holiday season and beyond to remember the food bank.
“This is going to be a hard winter for a lot of people,” he said.
Among area organizations and businesses offering dinner on Thanksgiving are:
— Smith-Tobey American Legion Post 21 in Bath will hold a free, public Thanksgiving dinner from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday.
— Midcoast Pizza & More, 737 Washington St., Bath, will serve a free traditional Thanksgiving dinner for all Bath residents from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday. For more information call 443-6631.
For more information about the mobile food truck effort in Bath, contact Kimberly Gates at email@example.com.