It might be the season of food baskets and charitable giving for many of us, but at Catholic Charities Maine, it’s business as usual.
“Attention to need appears to be prevalent at this time of year with all the talk of turkey and sugar plums,” said CC director Dixie Shaw, “but this is our reality year-round and the very quiet and secretive reality every day and every meal for many of the people we serve through our 25-pantry network.”
The reality is food insecurity, lack of access to enough food to ensure adequate nutrition. In Maine’s population of 1.3 million, 14 percent or between 175,000 and 200,000 people have a limited or uncertain supply of nutritious food. In Aroostook County, the numbers are 16 percent, 11,000 of the county’s 71,000 residents.
Amazing — for a region with abundant farmland and a rich tradition of agricultural productivity.
Catholic Charities purchases food from the Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank. It is shipped from warehouses in Auburn and Brewer to CC warehouses in Monticello and Caribou for pick-up by individual organizations and pantries.
“We hustle up any and all we can to add to it, since it often is not enough to meet our needs,” Shaw said. CC also is able to accept “windfalls” of perishable food from local businesses and trucking companies because the warehouses are equipped with large industrial-sized freezers and coolers.
“These warehouses are a wonderful asset to Aroostook County and allow for multiple truckloads of food to be received for distribution throughout the county,” Shaw said. “We hope to have one in the St. John Valley within the next two years.” Other organizations also use the warehouses. CC partners with the Aroostook County Action Program for the quarterly distribution of USDA food commodities and with the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging to distribute Senior Commodity Food Packs to more than 450 residents throughout the county each month.
But the costs associated with providing food to the needy are a challenge. “We need approximately $50,000 a year just for food,” Shaw said, explaining CC receives $10,000 a year in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and some money from United Way for operating expenses. “We operate three thrift stores and 100 percent of the profits go to operate our food bank project. It costs a lot to give away free food.”
Enter Jim and Martie Pritchard of Presque Isle. In 1995, the couple bought a piece of land about seven miles from town on Chapman Road without the skills or the time to cultivate it as a farm. The purchase was rooted in a dream that Martie traces back to her father.
“I listened to Dad talk about what he could do with a little piece of land,” she recalled, detailing the dreams she absorbed as a child. “They were beautiful dreams he never lived to see, but I kept that dream alive. When Jim and I saw this farm, we both fell in love with it.”
The 210-acre potato and dairy farm had been fallow for at least 28 years and the 100-year-old barn was collapsing. The Pritchards worked to save the barn, which now is home to their horses and those of neighbor children. But the land? “We prayed for some way to use it.”
Great recyclers, Jim and Martie met Shaw at Catholic Charities. One day last year when Jim was working at the food pantry he learned about the cost of shipping food from points south.
“It’s too bad we can’t use land right here in Aroostook County to grow food,” he remarked. His comment ignited an idea. The result was Farm for ME.
Martie recalls the scene: Jim and Dixie in the middle of the Presque Isle thrift store in the spring of 2012 brainstorming about how the Pritchard farm on the Chapman Road might be used to grow food for Catholic Charities. The idea became reality last summer with the cultivation of three acres of the Pritchard farm for a crop of turnips, beets and squash.
“They just turned the land over to us,” Shaw said, adding that other landowners since have offered to let CC use their farms. “We haven’t even gone out and asked.”
Shaw put together a steering committee of farmers and businesspeople with the expertise she needed and recruited volunteers to work on the farm. Catholic Charities obtained a grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation to buy equipment and conducted a Spring Appeal that raised $26,000 in donations. Soon Johnny’s Selected Seeds was on board with a donation of seeds for the first planting. Through a partnership with Northern Girl in Van Buren, processor of Maine-grown vegetables, the food is processed and frozen in small packages for distribution at a later date.
“The Farm for ME project is an opportunity for us and the people of Aroostook County to offer locally grown, fresh and nutritious food to those most in need,” Shaw said.
The 2013 harvest totaled 8,870 pounds of vegetables, an average of two pounds per person. “That’s 4,435 people served local organic fresh or fresh-packed frozen food. Even though we had a challenging, difficult growing year, we grew beautiful vegetables. We plan on doubling the crop next spring.”
For the Pritchards, Food for ME is the answer to a prayer. “The land is so much more because of their being there. It is a mutually beneficial experience,” said Martie. “Their project fulfilled our dreams and built new dreams. Imagine how many people could be fed by this land.”
For more information about or to donate to Catholic Charities Maine, visit the organization’s website at: http://www.ccmaine.org/
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.