Judy Staples and Nancy Hammond (left), volunteering with the Kindness Program, pack groceries for RSU 20 families Thursday, May 13, 2021 at the First Congregational Church in Searsport. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — Two years ago, when Maine legislators passed a state law that prohibited “food shaming,” Searsport retiree Jayne Snowdale first got an inkling of the scope of food insecurity in her community.

It happened when Regional School Unit 20 Superintendent Chris Downing said at a local meeting that his biggest concern was about what happened nutritionally when students weren’t at school. He knew a lot of Searsport students spent school and summer vacations hungry.

That didn’t sit right with Snowdale, who had grown up in the kind of big, Italian-American family that always had something delicious simmering on the stove. As a result, she loves to feed people — and she hates to see them hungry.

Snowdale, who chaired the missions committee at the Searsport First Congregational Church, thought she and her friends could help.

“How can we fix this?” she remembered asking.

The answer they found is the Kindness Program, a non-profit organization Snowdale helped to start. She and the group’s other tireless volunteers source food, cook and freeze meals, pack grocery boxes and deliver them where they need to go. It’s a lot. Snowdale estimated she puts in “more than 40 and less than 100” hours a week working on the project’s various components, and the others are right there with her.

Nancy Hammond, volunteering with the Kindness Program, packs groceries for RSU 20 families Thursday, May 13, 2021, at the First Congregational Church in Searsport. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

They’re not doing it for money, or for attention. They just want to help people in their community get enough to eat. It’s as simple as that.

“I can’t bear to imagine that in America today, there are children who are hungry,” Snowdale said. “It’s really a lot sadder than I think most people understand.”

On Thursday morning, she took a break from packing cardboard boxes with enough groceries to feed the families of 78 students for a week to explain how the project came to be. At first, they packed bags of food for the families of 35 to 40 students from the district during school vacations.

But when the pandemic began in March 2020, things escalated fast.

“We went from vacation to full-time, and served close to 100 [students] at the height of the pandemic,” Snowdale said. “People said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know how much work this will be? How much money?’”

It was a lot, on both counts, but they found a way. The effort had outgrown the church’s missions committee, so Snowdale and the others were able to get registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. They decided to call it something easy to remember, and true.

“Kindness — that’s what I always told my kids. If you can be anything, be kind,” Snowdale said.

Jayne Snowdale (left), president of the Kindness Program, and Judy Staples go over a food list on Thursday, May 13, 2021, at the First Congregational Church in Searsport. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Kind, and generous too. The program spends about $35 per week per child and at least $300 per week on the meals for the 42 older people they serve. Much of the money is raised through the monthly dinners the organization puts on.

“It’s free to anybody that wants to come, but people are generous and give us donations,” Snowdale said.

The Kindness Project also receives fresh produce donated by the Daybreak Growers Alliance, the Waldo County Reentry Center and Waldo County Bounty.

Every week volunteers cook, freeze, package and deliver meals to elderly residents, with one recent menu featuring roast pork dinners, chicken parmesan, white bean and rosemary soup and vegetarian lasagna. There are always homemade treats, such as cookies or brownies, and fresh vegetables too.

Volunteers mostly find the recipients through word of mouth, but serendipity has played a role. One of their delivery drivers once went to the wrong address by mistake with his box of food. But the woman who lived there came to the door crying, and asked how he had learned she needed food. The driver gave her the box, and added her to the list.

Another client wrote them a letter, telling them that the Kindness Program has been a blessing because she can’t afford to buy food and has a hard time getting around. She included a $2 donation. The small amount meant many times that to the program’s volunteers.

“We have the best clients,” Snowdale said.

Nancy Hammond, volunteering with the Kindness Program, packs groceries to be delivered to those in need. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

When she hears other people complain that recipients of aid don’t really need the help, it doesn’t sit right with her.

“It’s not true,” she said. “I have not seen anybody that I think is taking advantage of the program.”

That’s why it’s a labor of love to pack the grocery boxes for kids and their families. This week the boxes include cheese, eggs, sour cream, turkey breast, fish chowder, meatballs, sausages, carrots, turnip, spinach, bread, pasta, canned goods and snacks.

Charlene Knox Farris, a Kindness Program volunteer, is a retired teacher in the local school district and knows what happens when children don’t get enough to eat.

“You can’t do anything if you’re hungry,” she said. “We care about these people, even if we’re not sure who they are. We shouldn’t have to worry in this country about where food is coming from.”

For information about the program, including how to sign up for it, call Jayne Snowdale at 407-694-8733. To donate, contact the Kindness Program, P.O. Box 526, Searsport ME 04974.