CAMDEN — Tucked away on Mt. Battie Street in Camden is the Camden Area Christian Food Pantry. Many community members may be shocked to learn the food pantry will celebrate its 20th anniversary this coming September. Others may be surprised to learn that food insecurity in Camden and eight surrounding communities continues to be an issue that has dictated its need for the past 20 years.
Twenty-one years ago, church-goers from five area churches —The First Congregational, John Street United Methodist, Chestnut Street Baptist, Our Lady of Good Hope and St. Thomas Episcopal — came together to create a food pantry. The organizers were invited to speak to local philanthropists Charles and Julie Cawley who offered to either build a pantry or provide funding; the group chose the build.
Two decades and one expansion later, the CACFP is managed by the five churches and serves residents from Appleton, Camden, Hope, Islesboro, Lincolnville, Rockport, Searsmont, Union and Washington.
Although the food pantry is only open two days a week, there’s a massive behind-the-scenes operation, led completely by volunteers.
There are food pick-ups to be made multiple times a week at Camden Hannaford for meats and fresh milk, and Rockland Hannaford for bread and pastry; treks to Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn once or twice a month and Salvation Army for fresh produce, courtesy of Good Shepherd Food Bank; monthly pick-ups of Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program items in Warren and random trips to the grocery stores to fill in when needed.
Some volunteers come in on Sundays to set up for the week, some fill orders and assist clients on the open days, and others take boxboard to the transfer station. Volunteer hours surpassed 450 in April and 350 in May.
“It truly takes a village,” said Pauline Johnstone, longtime volunteer, and board member. Johnstone has been with CACFP since the very beginning and speaks enthusiastically about why she stays. “I love working with these volunteers, and being able to do this to serve people in need.”
Johnstone understands the struggles many people face, and as a nurse, sees the opportunity to provide good, fresh food to their clients. She’s grateful to all of their suppliers, including Erickson Fields Preserve in Rockport, owned and operated by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Led by Aaron Englander, Program Manager of the Erickson Fields Preserve, the Teen Ag Program gets high school students onto conserved lands — planting, growing, and harvesting vegetables for local pantries, schools and restaurants.
“We receive beautiful produce from June to October from Aaron and the Teen Ag Program. It’s such a great initiative and wonderful to know the students had a hand in helping our clients,” said Johnstone.
With all of this great support, what’s the biggest challenge facing the Camden Area Christian Food Pantry these days? Lack of funding? Lack of food? Surprisingly, it’s a lack of traffic.
“During the pandemic, we truly thought our traffic would increase dramatically, but it has not,” said board member Bill Freeman. We’ve been meeting via Zoom with other Maine food pantries, and most have also not experienced increased demand.”
The reasons for this vary, with some sensing the continual Federal stimulus money played a part, or the nationally televised images of long lines at food pantries. With a varied clientele of singles, large families, and the elderly, some see it as a matter of pride while others explain, “I don’t want to come and take from someone who is worse off than me.”
But here’s the good news — the Camden Area Christian Food Pantry has an abundance of food and wants to share it with as many people as possible. “We have several freezers full of meat, plus plenty of bread, beans, milk, eggs, pasta, fruit & vegetables, and more.” Applying for eligibility is easy. “We’re happy to answer questions and help potential clients with their application,” said Johnstone. “They can even take it home, fill it out, and bring it back.”
In order to best stretch their food allowance, CACFP recommends that clients come to the food pantry first and stock up on what they need before heading to the grocery store to fill in, instead of the other way around.
Serving those in need with smiles is what awaits clients at the Camden Area Christian Food Pantry, and many clients feel compelled to show their appreciation. One family sends a note weekly. “You are my rocking food bank. You are stars, angels, sweethearts.” And that’s exactly how the volunteers feel about their clients.