BREWER, Maine — This is in solidarity, not charity.
That’s what Food AND Medicine organizers say differentiates their Thanksgiving food drive from other traditional efforts to bring a meal to those who need it on a holiday centered almost entirely around food.
The Brewer-based group’s annual Solidarity Harvest was in full swing Wednesday, when volunteers were sorting thousands of pounds of locally sourced produce into bags that will make up the 1,300 baskets Food AND Medicine will provide this year to individuals and families across the state.
But unlike many holiday food drives, the towering bins of cranberries, piles of potatoes and boxes of assorted squashes were not donated. Instead, they were purchased from local farmers and producers using a budget of $45,000 made up of donations from the Eastern, Western and Southern Maine Labor Councils and about 50 other sponsors of the harvest event.
“This is a way to both bring food to people but also support organizations,” Food AND Medicine Director, Jack McKay said. “It’s a way to support the local economy by helping out small food producers and farmers. It’s also a way to empower people.”
Building up people and organizations
The Solidarity Harvest began in 2003, giving out just over 100 baskets that first year. This year’s harvest will be Food AND Medicine’s largest, surpassing last year’s basket total by about 100.
The harvest was started as a response to a series of mill closings that left many union workers without jobs. While the foundation of the Solidarity Harvest is still heavily supported by the labor unions they partner with, the harvest has grown to include faith-based organizations, other nonprofits, local businesses and child care providers.
Food AND Medicine organizes the Solidarity Harvest. However, their partnering organizations distribute the baskets and determine who ultimately receives them. There is no application process or needs-based evaluation of the recipients. Food AND Medicine believes food is a right, not a privilege, and anyone who has fallen on hard times deserves assistance.
“Everybody has dignity and value and circumstances make things challenging, so we act in solidarity,” Food AND Medicine organizer Martin Chartrand said.
With a statewide network of partnering organizations and more than 400 volunteers involved in the groundwork of the harvest, organizers say the Solidarity Harvest has an impact that extends beyond helping those in need on Thanksgiving.
“It’s building people up,” Chartrand said. “It’s always amazing to me, the self-organization of people working together. … When we work together we can accomplish things that are making life better for our neighbors.”
Local farmers are another group that Food AND Medicine seek to help elevate with their annual harvest. The organization buys the produce needed for the baskets from farmers instead of asking for donations.
About 40 farms statewide contribute to the bounty of squash, cranberries, potatoes, onions, carrots and turnips needed to fill the 1,300 baskets. Food AND Medicine pays farmers for the price they ask for, knowing the farmers need to maintain a viable source of income.
“The farmers are strengthened in this. While there may be a donation here and there because they support what we’re doing, (for) the vast majority we purchase all this food at whatever price they name,” Food AND Medicine member Adam Thiesen said.
Before the harvest, the produce used for the baskets is stockpiled in the basement of Food AND Medicine’s facility. On Wednesday, volunteer Josh Kauppila, threw bag after bag of potatoes over his shoulder, lugging them up from the basement up to the main floor where other volunteers were breaking down the bulk crates and sacks of produce into individualized bags.
Kauppila, who has worked previously as a farm hand, said aside from the benefit he believes the body receives from eating what the land can produce, sourcing the harvest’s produce from area farmers is a boon for helping create a sustainable local economy.
“Working on farms, I know that farmers often get hit up for donations pretty frequently, so the fact that (Food AND Medicine) is actually paying the farmers what they ask for, I think is really important,” Kauppila said. “It’s good because everyone along the chain gets helped. It’s helping farmers so people can get fed.”
A good meal
Clayton Carter of Fail Better Farm in Etna said he had a great experience working with the Solidarity Harvest in previous years.
“It’s nice to connect local, working-class families who are in need with super high-quality local food,” Carter said. “We’re all working together.”
Food AND Medicine begins planning for the harvest in January, holding a monthly meaning to discuss logistics and fundraising. While the Solidarity Harvest is the only food drive style event they organize, Theisen said the group is always trying to increase awareness of food insecurity.
Maine ranks ninth nationally and first in New England in food insecurity, according to the USDA. Food insecurity means a person lacks access to enough food to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition.
With about 30 pounds of food in each of the Solidarity Harvest baskets, no recipient will be without enough to eat for Thanksgiving, at least.
Each basket includes 2 pounds of apples, 3 pounds of beets, 3 pounds of carrots, 2 pounds of onions, 10 pounds of potatoes, 2 pounds of turnips, 5 pounds of squash, 12 ounces of cranberries, one head of garlic, one bag of rolls, one box of butter, one loaf of pumpkin bread, one box of stuffing, one half-gallon jug of cider and one turkey.
The only items in the baskets that are not locally sourced are the turkeys and the boxes of stuffing. McKay said they have tried in the past to source turkeys locally, but given the smaller scale organic farms Food AND Medicine source from they’ve been unable to find a way to get the number of turkeys they need without exhausting their budget.
This year WABI and Penquis are working to raise funds and provide the turkeys for the Solidarity Harvest baskets.
“The baskets are really high-quality baskets,” McKay said. “We want it to be a quality item that people can feel good about giving.”
Given the variety of the produce — from raw cranberries to acorn squash to turnips — a small cookbook is provided with the basket, which features a recipe for each item.
Bangor resident Patti Barker took a day off from work to volunteer, helping to assemble baskets. She and her husband Virgil had never volunteered with the harvest in years before, but they attend church with Theisen, who made an announcement about the need for volunteers on Sunday. Midday on Wednesday the Barkers were busy sorting carrots and potatoes.
Patti Barker was all smiles as she sorted through produce she’d never seen before, including a batch of purple carrots. Having never participated in the event before, Barker said she was amazed at the scope of involvement and impact.
“It takes everybody to do this,” Barker said. “It comes from the farmer, then for us to sort through, then going out to the people who need it. I think it’s great.”