Providing Needed Food, and Providing A Positive Experience for Volunteers
For 41 years, the Good Shepherd Food Bank has carried out its mission to fight hunger in Maine. It is Maine’s largest food bank.
Kristen Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank for the past three years, said the demand for food has been steadily rising since the pandemic hit Maine last spring. “And we were already dealing with a lot of need before this happened.” Kristen explained that Maine is the 12th highest state for food insecurity nationwide, with the highest rate of hunger in New England. One in five children lives in a food insecure household.
The food bank works with 500 networks to distribute food donations statewide. They work with school districts, community medical centers, and local food pantries.
Then, “When the pandemic hit overnight, everything had to change,” Kristen explained.
But taking care of their neighbors in communities is what Mainers do, in places from Fort Kent to Rangeley, and from Eastport to Kittery. Food bank officials say donations are up nearly 50 percent over 2019 and more than 27 million meals have been distributed to Maine families. Volunteers have stepped up to help.
“It’s been astounding. I feel like there has been an outpouring of support. We wouldn’t be able to do this at all if it wasn’t for the Mainers that have helped,” Kristen said. “They have always been there for us so we can be there for people who need our help.”
The Good Shepherd Food Bank operates two distribution facilities in Auburn and Hampden, staffed by 85 people and a legion of volunteers. In 2019, more than 4,000 volunteers donated 22,000 hours, which is the equivalent of 10 full time staff people, Kristen said.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some older volunteers have had to stay home for their own safety, which has been hard for them. For example, at 91 years young, Gerry Tinkham misses the time she previously spent volunteering at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in her home community of Auburn.
Before she was forced to stop volunteering, Gerry had logged more than 2,000 hours at the food bank.
Her drive to help others in need has always been strong, Gerry said. She recalls how she grew up during the Great Depression. Her father would take bags of potatoes he grew on the family farm and leave them at his neighbors’ doorstep to help them get through those tough times. When Gerry was able to volunteer a few hours each week to help those families, “I would leave with a grin on my face.”
Gerry’s nine-year tenure as a GSFB volunteer began when she toured the Auburn facility in 2011. She had been looking for a meaningful way to help and connect, after spending many years caring for her husband, who passed away in 2007.
“I had the time, and I am widowed, and it just seemed as if there was a job to be done, and I was capable of doing it. When I started going, I realized I enjoyed it because of the other volunteers that I worked with,” Gerry said. “You only have to go one or two times before you are hooked.” Equally important, the Good Shepherd staff were always very accommodating and welcoming, she recalled. Regardless of a volunteer’s age or physical ability, the staff found a good way for each to make a contribution.
Gerry grew up in Auburn and was a devoted wife and mother to her two children. Her second life as an educator began when she went to work in the guidance department of the former Portland Regional Vocational Technical Center. Her boss wanted her to take some courses so she could perform her job better. Before long, Gerry realized she was drawn to teaching and good at it. She decided to earn a college degree in education at age 50. She taught industrial arts and graphic arts until she retired in 1988.
Her time as a Good Shepherd Food Bank volunteer was satisfying, Gerry said. “It’s wonderful to be able to help someone.” Gerry hopes to go back and volunteer again when it is safe for her to do so. “I was very fortunate to volunteer there,” Gerry said in October.” I miss it terribly.”
Some of Gerry’s fellow volunteers echo these thoughts. Rob Johnson, 68, began volunteering twice a week in February 2017. Before retiring, he had built a good 30-plus year career as the principal financial officer at several banks in Maine. Now, he has since contributed over 800 hours of service to the food bank. “It makes you feel very good,” he said, just knowing that you are helping other people keep food on the table.
Rob lives in Cumberland, and his routine at the food bank was suddenly interrupted when he and his wife both contracted COVID-19 in March. Rob said his wife works in the Cumberland school district, and they believe that is where they caught the virus. He had a fever, chills, and other COVID-related symptoms for about a week, as he and his wife quarantined at home for two weeks. “One thing that I had was brain fog, where I just couldn’t remember things.”
Rob said the food bank decided that same month to have all volunteers age 65 and older stay home for their safety. When that policy was changed in June, he went back. Despite the risks posed by COVID-19, Rob never stopped wanting to do his part. He is one of those many people who believe in the moral obligation to give back to their communities.
Rob also believes retirement doesn’t mean that you just stay home and do nothing. On the contrary, retirement is an opportunity to do more. Rob also serves on the Board of Directors for Volunteers in America in Brunswick, a non-profit group that provides affordable housing for seniors, people with physical and developmental disabilities, and veterans.
Gina Blanchard is another volunteer at Good Shepherd Food Bank. She came there in January after a long and successful career at Central Maine Community College. Gina started out as a volunteer receptionist, but after COVID-19 hit, she switched gears helped to box food for food bank recipients and the backpack program. She also sorts produce and frozen items in the main warehouse. In 2020 alone, Gina has contributed nearly 200 hours.
The entire food delivery model was adapted to protect volunteers and the people they serve. Currently, the food bank allows 15 volunteers at a time to work in Auburn and six at a time in Hampden. Nine trucks do deliveries to their partners every day. All volunteers and staff members must wear masks and practice social distancing. When partners pick up food, they wait in their vehicles and their deliveries are brought out to them. A lot of drive-thru food pantries were established, along with home delivery or it was arranged that people could pick up items at food pantries by appointment only. The food bank devoted $500,000 to buy cleaning supplies, gas cards, and boxes that are safe for home deliveries to its partners.
The level of need for food has risen by as much as 90 percent, and there is no end in sight. The situation may become even more dire as Maine enters a long winter. “The current crisis really highlights what it means to live paycheck-to-paycheck, and when you lose a paycheck, it’s devastating,” Kristen Miale, the president of the food bank said. “Our concern is that the economic toll of this pandemic will be considerably longer than the public health toll.”
According to Feeding America, Maine’s food insecurity rate is projected to be 215,850 people, which is 25 percent higher than in 2018. Even more alarming is child food insecurity, as mentioned above. Some 62,660 children or 1 out of 5 Maine children, will experience hunger in 2020. This is 32 percent higher than in 2018.
To illustrate how much food demand has skyrocketed this year, Kristen said the food bank purchased $1.5 million of food in 2019, while as of May, they have purchased $3.5 million of food. Usually, the food bank would purchase 10 percent of its food, and the rest would come from donations. This year, the amount of food purchased has grown to 40 percent.
Food donations were down by 50 percent at the height of the pandemic this spring, and financial donations were up 1,000 percent, Kristen said, a pattern that the food bank would ordinarily experience during the holiday season.
Last spring LL Bean also packed boxes of food for Good Shepherd Food Bank when their retail operations were shuttered in Freeport and elsewhere. As of November, LL Bean workers had packed more than 45,000 boxes of food.
Despite all of the precautions taken by the food bank to protect its staff and volunteers, they were forced to temporarily close the Hampden facility in September after an employee tested positive for the virus. But throughout the pandemic, the food bank has continued to serve Maine families and individuals in need, thanks to the great support from Mainers and Maine businesses statewide.