May 21, 2018
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State food bank accuses Millinocket ministry of forcing religion

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Good Shepherd Food-Bank no longer distributes food via one of its Katahdin region distributors due to “compliance issues” with its contract, possibly imperiling efforts to aid laid-off paper millworkers, officials said Wednesday.

One of the region’s leading Good Shepherd distributors, ICare Ministries of Spring Street, received a letter last week in which the food bank accused the ministry of “only serving a specific religious population” and of “forcing people to attend religious services to get food from us,” ICare Pastor Herschel Hafford said.

“Neither of those statements are true,” Hafford said Wednesday.

“I am sure people in the Katahdin region know what we have done to help. ICare has been a very benevolent organization and served a lot of people [for about 14 years]. We haven’t done it on the basis of religion or attendance of any religious services,” he added.

Rick Small, Good Shepherd’s president and CEO, and Clara McConnell, the agency’s communications manager, declined to specify why it ended its distribution efforts with ICare. McConnell said her organization hopes to distribute food through Kevin’s Cupboard of East Millinocket but has not finalized that arrangement.

“We tried to work through [the issues with ICare], but we were forced to come to a decision,” McConnell said Wednesday. “We are very much aware of the tough times that people in East Millinocket and Millinocket are having right now, and we are working with another agency to bring them on board to get more emergency food into the area.”

The Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill in East Millinocket closed on April 1, idling about 450 workers and devastating an already staggered regional economy, which has never fully recovered from a September 2008 closure of the company’s sister mill in Millinocket. That left 150 workers jobless.

State and local government officials are working to lure investors to revitalize those mills by July 31, when mill parent company Brookfield Asset Management has said it will begin decommissioning the mills.

Thanks to an extension of some benefits and a brief extension of the mill workers’ pay periods, ICare hasn’t yet seen the impact of the layoffs, but that won’t last long, Hafford said.

When the former Great Northern Paper Co. sought bankruptcy protection in 2003 and its two Katahdin mills shut down, ICare went from serving 50 to 60 households in 2002 to more than 2,000 the following year, Hafford said.

East Millinocket Administrative Assistant Shirley Tapley said she knew of Kevin’s Cupboard and a few other churches in that town which distribute food to the needy, but wasn’t sure whether they still managed food pantries.

Hafford is working to find other food distributors to replace Good Shepherd and encourages distributors to call him at 723-7977. Anyone interested in donating food to ICare should also call that number, he said.

Somewhat stung by Good Shepherd’s actions, Hafford said he was compiling surveys of his clients and other residents and that, so far, 62 people had signed statements supporting his ministry against the accusations.

Of the 173 households that received his pantry’s food last year, “only about four come to our church. We have less than 50 people” in the church, Hafford said.

ICare enjoys good working relationships with a half-dozen churches in the region and several social service organizations, Hafford said, including churches with which ICare worked to distribute heating oil to 131 families last heating season.

“He has done a lot of work, and good work,” Small said of Hafford. “It’s just that this situation doesn’t work anymore.”

Good Shepherd distributes food through more than 650 agencies statewide, enough to provide 25,000 meals daily, Small said.

Anyone in the Katahdin region in need of food or wishing to contribute food to those who might need it can call 782-3554, McConnell said.

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