BREWER, Maine — A group of nonprofit food pantry and soup kitchen operators plan to drive home their contention that changes are needed in the fees imposed by the Good Shepherd Food-Bank of Auburn.
About 26 representatives of pantries and kitchens from Madison to Millinocket met Monday in Brewer to discuss their concerns about the fees the food bank charges for food it purchases with charitable donations. A similar meeting was said to have been held last week in Hancock County for food pantries from that area.
“I just hope Good Shepherd doesn’t get the wrong conception of why we are here. We just want them to wake up and hear us,” Pastor Tom Bruce of the Living Word Community Food Cupboard in Dover-Foxcroft said Monday. “They have the answer, they have the means in which to answer these problems.”
Good Shepherd officials stood by their policies Monday, and not everyone who attended the gathering at Jeff’s Catering was upset with the food bank’s fees. Bob Roberts, co-director of the Bangor Ecumenical Food Cupboard, said the food bank is like any other business and has overhead costs. He said he has had a “very good experience” working with Good Shepherd and he worries that the publicity about the fees could hurt the hungry.
Because salvage items such as crushed cereal boxes and dented cans donated by major supermarkets and retail stores are becoming scarce as a result of improved in-store processes, Good Shepherd fills the void with purchased products. The food bank uses the funds it receives from corporations, individuals and grants to purchase items from soup to tuna fish and then charges its partner agencies a per-pound maintenance fee of up to $2 for the items, a fee that many of the volunteer organizations say they can’t afford. In some cases, operators say they can purchase the same product locally for less than the maintenance fee.
That cost for purchased products was the topic of Monday’s meeting organized by Bruce and Pastor Herschel Hafford of I Care Ministries in Millinocket. Hafford was terminated from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in April for allegedly forcing people to attend religious services in exchange for food, a claim he denies. Hafford, who believes he was terminated for speaking out about the higher fees over the years, said he will continue to fight to get the food bank to lower its maintenance fees on purchased products for others.
The food bank uses the numbers of people fed at the various food pantries and kitchens as the basis of its solicitations, Hafford said. It uses the donations to purchase products and truck the goods to the food bank’s warehouses, where the items are placed on shelves. The food pantries cover the cost of the transportation to pick the food up at the warehouses, pay the maintenance fee and then distribute the food to the hungry, he said.
Angie Brown of the Together Place Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen of Bangor said Monday that her organization can’t afford to pay for the food bank’s purchased product. She said she has been purchasing food locally at less cost than the fees imposed by Good Shepherd.
Jason Hall, who was a customer service representative for Good Shepherd for several years and now is employed by the Maine Department of Agriculture in its emergency food assistance program, said Monday he had heard the complaints over the years about the food bank’s maintenance fees for purchased products. While he said Good Shepherd is a great organization, he thinks the fees aren’t fair.
Organizers had hoped that a representative of Good Shepherd would be at the meeting to explain the fees, but no one appeared. Bruce said Good Shepherd was notified about Monday’s meeting and had assured him someone would attend. He said he learned otherwise late last week.
Contacted Monday, Christine Force, Good Shepherd’s vice president of fund development, said food bank officials did not attend the meeting because it was not solely a meeting of partner agencies. Good Shepherd has planned its own regional meeting on Aug. 24 at the Newport Cultural Center, she noted.
Of the 600 partner agencies of Good Shepherd, about 80 percent are hunger agencies such as food cupboards and soup kitchens, Force said. The remainder are nonprofit agencies such as group homes, summer camps that serve the disadvantaged, and organizations that serve vulnerable seniors and the disabled.
“We understand the frustrations of our partner agencies as they try to feed the hungry in the current economic climate,” Force quoted Rick Small, Good Shepherd’s chief executive officer, as saying Monday. “Our partner agencies are reporting to us an increase in need of between 20 and 50 percent annually. Hunger is a real human tragedy in Maine. We will continue our efforts to feed Maine’s vulnerable as we have been doing for 30 years.“
Bruce agreed later Monday that hunger is a tragedy, but added: “Feeding the hungry has become big business on the backs of small food cupboards. We are not sour grapes. We‘ve just been frustrated for several years with no outlet.”