Ania Chandler lifts a bag of onions in Portland on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 while working with a dozen other volunteers at Presente Maine's food distribution operation. The organization distributes 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of free food a week in the city and 3,000 to 5,000 in Lewiston. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Days before Maine’s elected officials declared an emergency order last March, Crystal Cron was dialing up people she knew, urging them to stay home.

But despite a terrifying pandemic closing in around them, that wasn’t an easy sell. Many Cron spoke with told her they didn’t have a choice. They worked frontline jobs and faced increased infection risks due to their reliance on public transportation. Plus, they still needed to grocery shop.

Within a matter of days, Cron and a team of volunteers mobilized a “food brigade,” delivering rations of beans, rice and vegetables to low-income communities in Portland and Lewiston. Known as Presente Maine, Cron and her team targeted Latinx, Black, Indigenous, Asian and other people of color, who are disproportionately low-income and under-resourced compared with their white counterparts in Maine.

Crystal Cron, organizer and founder of Presente Maine, works with volunteers on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 , distributing food in Portland. Cron started the organization a year ago in response to the pandemic and now distributes over 10,000 pounds of food a week in the city. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A year later, Cron is still heading up that work. On a recent Saturday morning, she and a team of volunteers gathered in the corner of a windy parking lot to pack up more than 15,000 pounds of food to deliver to the doorsteps of Portland and Lewiston households.

They do it every Saturday. The organization now delivers food rations to more than 2,200 Mainers, or 500 households every week, according to a recent annual report. Cron says hundreds more are on a waiting list.

“We’ve been successful but it has been messy and stressful,” Cron said. “When I talk about working 80 to 100 hours a week I’m not exaggerating.”

Maine’s official coronavirus response flows through formal channels, like agencies who distribute CARES Act funds, unemployment benefits, PPP loans, rental assistance vouchers and swab tests to people who fill out necessary paperwork. A lot of that funding goes through sanctioned nonprofits, who administer services at the direction of their boards.

But as Cron has found, those efforts don’t reach everyone. Beneath the formal layer, a dense network of mutual aid efforts have filled in the gaps, helping to direct needed funds, food and care to Mainers who are excluded from benefits or need help navigating the system.

The pandemic exacerbated Maine’s existing racial disparities. Cron, who is Latinx, saw that many BIPOC people in the state worked in meat and seafood processing in companies that experienced outbreaks. Others were agricultural workers, some undocumented, who did not receive coronavirus stimulus checks. Many lacked the means to pay for home delivery services to remain in quarantine.

One year later, Presente Maine is still identifying those gaps. Though they began as a small cluster of volunteers packing and delivering food, the group has expanded to help address the needs of BIPOC communities, focusing on volunteer contact tracing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and helping people apply for housing and rental assistance programs.

From left (clockwise): Aaron Parker fills bags of rices in Portland on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 while working with a dozen other volunteers at Presente Maine’s food distribution operation; Ania Chandler doles out a bag of onions in Portland on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 while working with a dozen other volunteers at Presente Maine’s food distribution operation; A 30-pound box of food stands filled and ready in Portland on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 at Presente Maine’s food distribution operation. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

While mutual aid efforts like Presente Maine’s often move faster than government services, the group’s efforts have helped state agencies fill in service gaps. Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services funded Presente Maine and more than two dozen other community-based organizations through Health Equity contracts to provide targeted social services to those in quarantine, said DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell.

Presente has been “a valued partner in the provision of social services related to COVID-19,” Farwell said. They have “lifted up the needs and concerns of Maine’s Latinx community” and helped the state direct services during the pandemic, giving the government “a regular avenue by which to hear about the unique needs of various communities.”

In addition to foundation grants and Health Equity funds through the state, the group has received more than $105,000 in charitable donations through a fund operated by Mano en Mano, a Maine-based organization that supports migrant farm workers. 

Asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrant populations have received state support in recent years in the form of MaineCare, SNAP and General Assistance funding. But Cron knows that many in Latinx and BIPOC communities are excluded from those resources, like undocumented people and many of Maine’s seasonal farm workers.

She hopes that Presente Maine’s work can break down perceived divisions between those groups, reducing stigma about who is allowed to receive help.

“One narrative that has been repeated for years is the idea that African immigrant needs are being met at the expense of Latinxs,” Presente Maine states in its recent report. “Presente refuses to participate in this line of thinking. We want peoples’ needs to be met. We want our Black siblings, whether born here or afar, to have access to food, housing, education, childcare, medical care. The question is not whether anyone is deserving. The question is why do we live in a system that does not meet our most basic needs even though resources are plenty?”

From left (clockwise): Leo Hilton unpacks mushrooms in Portland on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 while working with a dozen other volunteers at Presente Maine’s food distribution operation; Sebastien Limones stacks empty boxes in Portland on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 while working with a dozen other volunteers at Presente Maine’s food distribution operation; Tine Ortolf fills bags of rice in Portland on Saturday Feb. 20, 2021 while working with a dozen other volunteers at Presente Maine’s food distribution operation. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Partnerships with other organizations serving Maine’s nonwhite populations have helped. The group forged collaborations with the Black, Indigenous and People of Color Fund operated by the Maine Community Foundation and several small farming operations around the state. Last summer, Presente volunteers grew food, later used for rations, on a small farming plot operated by Land in Common, a nonprofit community land trust based in Greene.

As Maine announced its vaccination plan, Cron has been concerned that frontline workers and others with high-risk medical conditions are being left behind. The state recently scuttled a plan to prioritize vaccines to vulnerable Mainers in favor of an age-based schedule, then fast-tracking teachers at the direction of President Joe Biden.

After a year listening to the needs of low-wage and frontline workers in Maine, that doesn’t make sense to Cron.

“That seems backward to me, especially considering we were having all these conversations about racial health disparities,” Cron said.

Cron hopes that Presente Maine’s work over the past year can serve as a proof of concept, earning her a seat at the decision-making table for how services can be administered.

“I think we all understand that nothing is perfect, but we’re hoping that now that more funding has been dedicated to these programs we can be part of developing and implementing the plans for this year,” Cron said.

“I think the state is finally acknowledging that there’s this huge gap, and I think it’s because we’ve been making such a big deal.”

Clarification: Originally estimated at $70,000, amount Presente received through Mano en Mano has been updated to better reflect the amount of donations received.