ORONO, Maine — In the mid-1990s, the University of Maine’s Farm Store churned out ice cream — while student employees learned about ice cream manufacturing and retailing — which was sold at the school’s Memorial Union.
It has been at least seven years since the Farm Store was an active ice cream production facility for students, but these days the facility is dishing out something even sweeter.
The university unveiled Wednesday the Black Bear Exchange, a thrift shop and food pantry open not only to the UMaine community but also to the public, in the former Farm Store building.
Robert Dana, UMaine’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students, said the Black Bear Exchange may be the first shop of its type on a U.S. college or university campus.
“This is important because it’s a very tangible display of doing for others,” Dana said after he participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It helps our students understand that by virtue of being here we’re privileged but all around us are people who need help. We have a responsibility as college-educated individuals to provide that help.”
The shop’s opening was one of several activities planned as part of Maine Day, a day traditionally set aside since 1935 for students, faculty and staff to help spruce up the campus. Other Maine Day activities included longtime favorite Oozeball, a parade, student demonstrations, facilities repairs and maintenance around the cam-pus.
Wednesday’s opening also comes as university officials have said in recent months they will lay off workers in order to close an $8.8 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The probability of those layoffs, along with uncertainty in the economy, was the reason the Classified Employees Advisory Council came up with the idea for the thrift shop last fall. UMaine has 935 classified employees whose hourly or temporary status makes them a target for layoffs, said Robin Arnold, president of the coun-cil.
“Our thought process was, we wanted it to be accessible to everyone, and it doesn’t matter what class you are,” said Arnold, who attended Wednesday’s opening. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a professor, a professional, or a classified [employee]. Everybody’s struggling.”
The exchange is a collaboration between the council, the Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism, and the School of Social Work.
“They decided that the food pantry would best serve the community as well as the students, faculty and staff on the campus,” said Renee MacDonald, a Bar Harbor native and a fourth-year social work student who helped coordinate the exchange. “Hunger on college campuses is real. It’s just not talked about.”
The Bodwell Center has hired Michelle Martin, a senior anthropology major from Patten, to run the store.
Parts of the Farm Store building, near the intersection of Sebago and Portage roads, still are used as a research and storage facility and a production facility for Yo Bon Blueberry Bites, a dark-chocolate-covered, wild Maine blueberry frozen yogurt dessert.
Dana said professor Rodney Bushway, chairman of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, gave students permission to use the front space of the Farm Store.
Dozens of volunteers spent Wednesday morning helping ready the shop for its opening. In the last few days volunteers have put in raised beds to grow produce which organizers are hoping will supplement donations from local farms. New York native Ryan Guerrero, a first-year graduate student in the intermedia Masters of Fine Arts program, painted a black bear logo on the front of the building.
While food items are free, clothing items can be picked up by exchange. Each type of clothing is assigned a point value — shoes, for example, are three points — and people can up a piece of clothing in exchange for a point-equivalent piece or pieces they’ve brought in themselves. No money exchanges hands, although the shop will accept donations, and anyone can donate clothing.
The exchange is also anonymous, which was important to the Classified Employees Advisory Council.
“The idea was to have students run it because with students, I have anonymity,” Arnold said. “They don’t know who I am. They don’t know who a faculty member is. So people can feel more comfortable coming in here than they may in their town office where it might not be private.”
The regular hours after May 16 will be 3-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7-11 a.m. Mondays, 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays and 7-11 a.m. Wednesdays. The shop will be closed Thursdays and Fridays.
Until then, people are welcome if the exchange is open.
For information, e-mail email@example.com or call the Bodwell Center at 581-3091.