SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Robust ears of corn plucked earlier from a nearby farm burst from bins. In the next aisle, acorn squash and juicy red apples exude a Whole Foods-like quality.
On Thursday mornings, when the doors of the South Portland Food Cupboard swing open, low-income families can’t believe their eyes.
“The produce is so absolutely beautiful that our clients just cry,” said director Sybil Riemensnider, who receives the weekly bounty from Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. “These are things they can’t afford.”
Healthy, fresh and nutrition-dense vegetables, fish and dairy are flourishing at food pantries across Maine. Now in its fifth season, Mainers Feeding Mainers, a program run by the Good Shepherd Food Bank, pairs farmers with food pantries and soup kitchens to augment the canned and boxed rations that have sustained the hungry for decades.
“You can fill people full of cakes and cookies and all the bakery items and say we are feeding people,” Nancy Perry, who directs the program, said. “But we are not addressing obesity and diabetes when we feed people empty calories.”
Starting with nine farms in 2010, the program is now partnering with 35 Maine farmers and food producers, from Oakhurst Dairy to Pineland Farms. Mainers Feeding Mainers supplies 300 pantries and soup kitchen with fresh, locally grown food. Such efforts are gradually chipping away at the state’s staggering food insecurity problem.
The USDA estimates that 16.2 percent of Maine households, or 208,000 people, lack access to nutritious food.
“Despite everything we are doing, the numbers are still high,” Clara Whitney, the food bank’s director of public affairs, said.
Across the nation, Maine ranks 12th for food insecurity and has the most acute problem in New England. To address the dilemma, last year the Auburn-based hunger relief organization purchased 1 million pounds of produce and farmers donated an equal amount to the program.
“What we get from our farm partners is very good quality — what they call grade A, the best,” Perry said, making community efforts like these part of the solution.
Through a series of grants, Good Shepherd pays farmers a below-market rate to offer kale, carrots and other enviable produce to pantries across the state. Farmers don’t balk at the discount, though — on the contrary, they are relieved to have a guaranteed buyer. The partnership is a boon to the hungry who can’t afford to eat healthy and fresh and are largely locked out of Maine’s burgeoning buy local food movement.
“We serve 37,000 meals a week across the state,” Perry said. “Last year we distributed 7 million pounds of produce to 300 soup kitchens and pantries.”
At refuges, such as the Tree of Life Food Pantry in Blue Hill, such efforts have changed the game.
“We wouldn’t have nearly this much fresh produce to give away,” said Rick Traub, manager of the food pantry, which feeds 200 families on the peninsula and surrounding area each week. “We don’t buy produce at retail; it’s too pricy.”
For the last four years, Tree of Life has partnered with King Hill and Horsepower farms in Penobscot and North Branch Farm in Monroe. These top-of-the-line organic farms hand off a bounty every week.
“People love seeing fresh produce,” said Traub, who sees more smiles all the time. “To get anything like kale, carrots or winter squash would be cost prohibitive for our recipients.”
Because of the program, “our pantry is completely changing the way we provide food. It used to be canned goods, now it’s an emphasis on fresh. This has been a big boost for us,” he said.
And farmers seem honored to assist.
“More Maine food for more Maine people” is Sarah Redfield’s motto.
Helping her husband, Stewart Smith of Lakeside Family Farm in Newport, disperse a portion of their 200 acres of vegetables to food banks throughout Penobscot and Washington counties is her way of giving back.
“We have a strong concern for our neighbors who don’t have adequate food,” Redfield said.
With enough extra produce “as a mid-sized farm, we have some economies of scale, so we are able to donate,” she said.
Once per week she drives to the Good Shepherd’s Brewer distribution warehouse with 600 pounds of broccoli, potatoes, parsnips and beets.
“It’s a gift to us. We are happy to do it,” she said.
Lakeside primarily sells to Hannaford. Although Good Shepherd pays them a nominal fee — about 80 percent less than wholesale — “the money is fair for what it is. It’s way less than our wholesale price but is helpful to have a contract to plan what we do,” she said.
“I think they are very visionary in trying to do this. It’s not just food: It’s good, nutritional food,” she added.
Even unusual offerings such as purple top turnips, a low-calorie root vegetable loaded with antioxidants, were a big hit last year at Tree of Life and prompted tips on turnip recipes.
“Patrons really start to look forward to produce,” Tree of Life produce manager Betsy Bott said. “It’s great to have stuff through the winter.”
Throughout the year, Bott orchestrates tastes tests to give patrons ideas on ways to cook healthy.
Sometimes she’ll go gourmet and create an apple corn chile, derived from donated produce. Simmering in a crock pot, she hands out samples with recipe cards, “just like Whole Foods.”