January 19, 2018
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How you can give food pantries what they really need

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

To many people in Maine, the weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas mean it’s time to help less-fortunate neighbors who may be struggling to put food on the table.

That urge makes volunteers and directors of food banks and pantries across Maine very grateful. But there are ways that Mainers can make sure their generous donations are exactly what the food banks need right now.

“We don’t really get a lot that’s not helpful, but I would say the biggest thing that’s not helpful is cleaning out your own personal food pantries and donating that, because of expiration dates,” Jenny Jones, the executive director of the Bar Harbor Food Pantry said. “Definitely buying directly from the grocery store and donating it to the pantry is ideal. And money is always great. I’m always torn by what’s better — food or money.”

At her pantry, the wish list right now includes cereal, canned soup, jarred pasta sauce, regular pasta, fresh produce and meat, because they have freezer space to keep it safely. Items that are always on the wish list include toiletries such as toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, and, of course, money. Everything has been in high demand this year in particular because the state has changed its policies to restrict access to the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, or SNAP, she said.

“This year has been interesting. We’ve had a lot higher numbers and consistently higher numbers, even in the summer, because SNAP benefits changed in Maine,” Jones said. “A lot of pantries are starting to see the need increase.”

In the past, the Bar Harbor Food Pantry might have served 15 households a day in the summertime, with more in the colder months, because many of the clients it serves around Hancock County are seasonal workers who usually need less help in the warmer months. But this year, just as many people came in during the summer — about 45 households during open hours.

“It just never let up,” Jones said. “We’ve spent about $10,000 more in food purchases this year over last year so far.”

Other food pantries in Maine have different wish lists, of course. At the Bath Area Food Bank, the Oct. 30 storm caused quite a bit of damage, according to officials. The food bank lost the contents of 12 out of 19 freezers because of the extended power outage as well as a refrigerator that had its motor blown out in a power surge, Kimberly Gates, executive director of the Bath Area Food Bank, wrote the BDN in a Facebook message. Gates said that more than anything, right now the food bank needs money to replace the lost food as soon as possible and the lost refrigerator before the new year.

In Brunswick, Karen Parker of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program said that her agency publishes a wish list once a month and shares it with the community. Just like in Bar Harbor, the Brunswick program also has seen a steep rise in usage in 2017.

“We saw the largest amounts of visits to the pantry in the summer months in the 11 years we’ve been keeping data,” she said. “When you think about [how low] the unemployment rate is, it seems counterintuitive.”

Many of those clients need the same type of things visit after visit, she said.

“A lot of the items are really consistent,” she said. “Non-perishable items such as tuna and spaghetti sauce, soups, canned vegetables, fruits and things like that.”

The Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program also has an ongoing need for money, of course, as well as diapers, toiletries and pet food, which the program distributes to its clients. But she made special note of something else: volunteers.

“We rely heavily on volunteers,” Parker said. “Without them we’d have to close our doors.”

One of the jobs the volunteers do is check the expiration date of all donated food.

“It’s very labor intensive, actually,” she said. “They go through to make sure there’s no products that expired five years ago. As long as it’s safe, we take anything.”

But Kristen Miale, the president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Maine’s largest food provider, would like to see Mainers aim higher. Her food bank, with major locations in Auburn and Hampden, distributes more than 23 million pounds of donated and purchased food a year in all 16 counties in the state.

“Sometimes people ask me what kind of food does the food pantry want? I say, well, what does your family eat for dinner? It’s vegetables, it’s fruit, it’s whole grains. They need nutritious meals,” she said. “People cleaning out their cupboards of food that’s five years old and you don’t want it anymore, well, we probably don’t want it either.”

Miale has seen people donate items such as large cases of Ramen noodles, which she said isn’t very useful.

“Oftentimes the people we serve are living on that food anyway because it’s all they can afford. No offense to Ramen noodles,” she said.

The Good Shepherd Food Bank needs money far more than it needs food donations from individual donors, she said. One dollar given to the Good Shepherd can purchase four meals, because the agency buys food in such large volumes it counts as a wholesale purchaser.

“We can really leverage that dollar,” Miale said.

But for the smaller, local food pantries that her agency serves and that do the job of getting food to hungry Mainers, she also suggests checking to see what their specific needs are. Some need meat and fresh produce. Some need nutritious frozen meals that senior citizens can easily heat up and eat. And some pantries need volunteers more than anything.

“Our pantries get a lot of donations this time of year, and I think they’re less apt to speak out and say ‘we really need this,’” Miale said. “If we can do that on their behalf, I’m happy to. They do amazing work, most operating on very small budgets. We could not do our work without them.”

General list of non-perishable items wanted by most food pantries and food banks:

—peanut butter

—dry pasta

—diapers and wipes

—toilet paper

—personal hygiene products

—toiletries such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap

—canned meat and fish, such as tuna

—healthy cereal

—canned vegetables and fruit

—canned soup

—spices

—canned beans

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