Tag Archives: food pantry

Is It Decent?

IMG_7617As I wrote in a previous post, last weekend we visited our friend Diane, and one of the things we talked about was her work at her town’s local food pantry.  On Monday, I got an email from her telling me that because of the bad weather, only ten families came to the pantry. A normal Monday count is fifty families. Ten families out in bad weather to get food. Fifty families when the weather is good. And Diane lives in an affluent community that is not known for the number of people who need food assistance.

By a strange coincidence—it’s funny how often this happens—there was an editorial in last week’s Sunday Kennebec Journal about the greater Portland area and General Assistance. (Diane does not live in Portland.) The gist of the piece was that Portland’s General Assistance is not excessively generous and is, in fact, greatly needed. “Demand for General Assistance spiked in 2009, the first year of the worst recession in 80 years. The budget has climbed each year since then as the benefits of the recovery have been disproportionately distributed to the people at the high end of the income scale. That’s why in Portland you can see lines outside trendy restaurants and at the soup kitchen a few blocks away.”

That last sentence really caught my attention—the notion of two lines of people, one group waiting to get into a trendy and almost certainly expensive restaurant while another group waits in line for the soup kitchen. What kind of city, what kind of state, what kind of country do we have where there are two lines so far apart?

People, of course, are entitled to spend their money any way they want, but is it decent to flock to a trendy restaurant, where the meals are usually $25 or even higher, while so many people wait in the soup kitchen line? Before the Great Recession, I’m not sure if I would have asked this question. I am a foodie, and I love the idea of a vibrant food scene with good chefs and good restaurants. A happy day for me is going to an outdoor food fair—when the weather is good—and nibbling on food here and there. When times were better, Clif and I would occasionally go to a restaurant where the meals were expensive.

But the Great Recession has clarified a lot of things, one of them being the terrible inequality in this country. People are twisting themselves inside out to have a safe, comfortable place to live, enough fuel to stay warm, enough food to eat, education for their children, and in too many cases, health care. (Diane spoke of how some of the people who come to the food pantry have lost all their assets, including their homes, because of illness and lack of health insurance.)

It is human, I know, to be concerned with the circle of people closest to you. It is easy to forget that there are other less fortunate circles. It is easy to look away, to justify, to want to splurge. But again I ask the question: Is it decent?

A Winthrop Food Pantry Supper: A Compelling Story of our Times

IMG_6637Last night, Clif and I went to a Winthrop Food Pantry supper for volunteers. Clif has taken pictures for the food pantry, and I have volunteered in various ways since 1997. Seventeen years! A long time, and I think there was only one other volunteer—Lee Gilman—who has been at the pantry longer than I have.

There was a good turnout—about thirty came to the supper. Unfortunately, the batteries in my camera went, and I didn’t think to bring extra batteries. Therefore, I only got a few shots of the event. Ah, well!

After we ate sandwiches, salad, and soups, JoEllen Cottrell, the executive director, and Mike Sienko, the president, spoke about the food pantry. Naturally, they thanked everyone for their hard work, which, astonishingly has come to 2,360 hours so far this year. (The food pantry has about fifty volunteers, and there is a sign up sheet so that the hours can be tracked.)

But there were more astonishing numbers to come. When JoEllen took over as executive director in 2011, there were about forty families per month that came to the food pantry. The sessions were leisurely, and often the volunteers had time to sit and chat between taking people around.

In three years, that number has tripled, and on average, 120 families come to the food pantry each month. The volunteers no longer sit and chat, and often the pantry stays open long past its closing time of 2:30 p.m.

As far as I know, there has been no increased publicity or effort to encourage more people to come to the food pantry, and it’s my guess that more people are coming because it has become increasingly difficult to make ends meet after the Great Recession. In Maine, good paying jobs are far and few between, and many people are still looking for work. While it’s great that the food pantry is around to help people in need, it’s sad that there are so many more people that need the help.

And here’s another number: Rick Dorey and his wife Sheila get food for the pantry at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. Last year, they brought 70, 000 pounds of food to the Winthrop Food Pantry, and Rick told me that he expects to exceed that number this year.

The Winthrop Food Pantry provides food for Winthrop (population 6,200) and Wayne (population 1,189). Wayne is a more affluent community than Winthrop, but neither is what you would consider poor. Yet so many people qualify for receiving food from the food pantry.  (The food pantry uses the federal guidelines.)

Numbers are one way of telling a story, and the numbers at the Winthrop Food Pantry certainly tell a compelling story of our times.