Volunteers distributed more than 1,000 food boxes in Waldo County on Friday. Credit: Courtesy of Kelsey Kobik

A distribution of federally funded free food to help people survive the pandemic drew more than 500 vehicles in Waldo County on Friday ― a sign of the impact of the county’s spike of 57 COVID-19 cases, organizers said.

Volunteers distributed 1,152 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farms to Families food boxes, their total supply, at Mount View High School in Thorndike and Renys Plaza in Belfast, said Cherie Merrill, executive director of Belfast Soup Kitchen, one of several organizations distributing the food.

Merrill said that the 57 cases connected to an outbreak spreading through Waldo County that has been linked to Brooks Pentecostal Church helped draw the record-breaking crowd. The outbreak likely began on the weekend of Oct. 2, when 100-150 people attended an indoor church service at which masks were available but not routinely used.

“With the uptick [of cases] in Waldo County lately, I think people are getting scared again. I think people are worried about what’s coming,” Merrill said Friday. “I think there are people who don’t want to go to the store because of the virus and can’t afford to go to the store because the cost of groceries has gone up a lot.”

The parking lot at Renys Plaza story in Belfast was flooded with cars on Friday as people sought food aid. Credit: Courtesy of Patricia Lojek

The boxes were advertised as containing a dozen pounds of produce, five pounds of meat, five pounds of dairy products and a gallon of milk. They also likely contained something extra: a letter signed by President Donald Trump that describes the millions of food-aid boxes as part of the White House’s coronavirus response.

The inclusion of the letter has worried the directors of some nonprofit organizations, who aim to not take a partisan stance.

But it’s clear that the need for food is real, Maine officials said.

“People are in need right now, with all the things we have going on with the pandemic, and the [the 57 cases] are exacerbating an already difficult situation,” Merrill said.

Belfast police assigned three officers to clear the traffic jams on Route 3 or Belmont Avenue. Traffic was backed up a quarter-mile from Renys to Quirk Ford and about the same distance in the other direction, Deputy Police Chief Dean Jackson said.

Friday’s distribution was the third USDA Farmers to Families effort in Waldo County, and the busiest, which local organizers attribute to a growing need for food aid to those left unemployed by the pandemic. When the volunteers distributed two loads of 1,152 boxes in August, they had about 200 left over after the first distribution and 50 remaining after the second. They distributed the remaining boxes the next day, said Mary Leaming, a volunteer with the food aid group Waldo County Bounty.

They will get a double allotment, 2,304 boxes, when they distribute food next Friday, Leaming said. The food is available for all Waldo County residents.

Waldo County Bounty, Belfast Soup Kitchen, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Waldo Community Action Partners are among the groups supporting the food box program, Leaming said.

BDN Writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this story.

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