County food pantries continue to see increases in clients as pandemic continues

AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — Food pantry operators across Aroostook County have seen firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented financial challenges, even for people who have stable employment.

The Caribou Ecumenical Food Pantry on Herschel Street has seen an increased need for food and has expanded the pantry’s hours to 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It offers curbside pickups on those days every four weeks.

“Every time we’re open, we see at least two to eight new clients,” Ruth Ann Weeks, pantry coordinator, said. “We’ve also seen a significant increase in families with young children.”

The Caribou Ecumenical Food Pantry has seen a steady increase in clients since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in March. (Chris Bouchard | Aroostook Republican & News)

The pantry serves clients from Caribou, Connor, Woodland, Perham, Wade and Washburn.

Although food insecurity has always been an issue within the pantry’s service area due to poverty, unemployment and disability, pantry operators are seeing an increase in clients who are still working but have had their hours reduced due to pandemic restrictions. 

Those folks are turning to the pantry to supplement what they cannot purchase with monthly funds. Senior citizens with fixed incomes are also struggling to meet basic needs, Weeks said.

“Most of the issue is the cost of living. Everything has gone up except people’s incomes,” Weeks said. “A lot of seniors are paying for heat, phones, food and medications. They can’t stretch themselves enough to meet all their needs.”

Weeks estimates that the pantry has served 3,364 people this year, with 25 percent of them being children and 26 percent senior citizens. The need increased quickly at the start of the pandemic and prompted the pantry to increase its hours.

Prior to the pandemic our clients were allowed to come to the pantry every six weeks,” Weeks said. “As of May of 2020, clients can come to the pantry every four weeks and that will continue as long as the pandemic does and we have enough food to serve everyone.”

Caribou Ecumenical Food Pantry is accepting calls for curbside pickups and can be reached at 207-498-3460.

Leslie Kelly, coordinator of the Greater Fort Kent Ecumenical Food Pantry, has also noticed that the increase in COVID-19 cases locally has made many senior citizens more afraid to venture out into the public. They and others have benefited from the pantry’s decision to deliver food rather than open the pantry, which Kelly said is too small for social distancing.

The total number of people the pantry served increased from 31 in February to 112 in March, compared to 49 in March 2019. The total number of clients served increased to 140 in April and varied from 50 to more than 90 people throughout the summer and early fall months.

Thus far, the Fort Kent pantry has served 1,254 people in 2020, compared to 929 in 2019, though Kelly noted that the number will increase in the later weeks of December.

As more COVID-19 cases occurred in Aroostook, the pantry served 402 people on Thanksgiving alone, in part thanks to a donation of 190 turkeys from a local business. The pantry serves people in Allagash, St. Francis, St. John, Fort Kent, New Canada, Wallagrass, Eagle Lake and Winterville.

“We’ve seen an increase in folks who are homeschooling and no longer have the free breakfasts and lunches from schools,” Kelly said. “More people in general are afraid to go out because of the case numbers.”

Since the pantry relies solely on donations, grant funding has become an important means for keeping up with increased demand. The pantry received $2,970 from the CARES Food Security Network Reimbursement Program and a $6,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation to support more food purchases.

The pantry has six volunteers, but more could be needed if the number of food requests continues to increase. The latest zip code data from the Maine CDC, updated on Dec. 17, shows 17 cases in Fort Kent, 12 in Madawaska, 44 in Caribou, 31 in Presque Isle and 66 in Houlton.

The best number to call for food deliveries, which are scheduled daily, is 207-834-4126. 

Haven Rhoda holds out a backpack to give out to a parent as Nanette Mills, left, and Tammy Goetsch look on behind her at the Adopt-a-Block of Aroostook’s annual backpack giveaway held on Aug. 29, 2020. Adopt-a-Block has served the community in various ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times)

In Houlton, Adopt-a-Block of Aroostook, which accepts donations of food, clothing and furniture for people in need, has seen its services shift primarily toward food distribution during the pandemic.

Prior to March, Adopt-a-Block was serving 110 families that they had “adopted” over the last 12 years directly inside the pantry. Since then the organization has transitioned into curbside pickup days, and food deliveries as needed. The group partnered with Good Shepherd Food Bank to ensure that people in towns outside of Houlton could access food as well.

Adopt-a-Block has continued offering curbside food box pickups once a week and has seen traffic increase once again due to rising COVID-19 cases in Houlton. Goetsch estimates that by the end of the year she and volunteers will have distributed 81 tons of food to 2,745 individuals. They have seen at least 25 to 30 new families at each distribution.

As with other regions of Aroostook, the folks at Adopt-a-Block are realizing the extent of the pandemic’s financial impact.

“We’re seeing more working families whose work hours have been cut back or their businesses shut down,” said Tammy Goetsch, Adopt-a-Block executive administrative assistant. “It’s not just people with lower incomes who are struggling to make ends meet now.”

Adopt-a-Block is located at 307 Military St. in Houlton and can be reached at 207-532-2273.

Grace Interfaith Food Table is located on 11 Industrial Street in Presque Isle. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

At Grace Interfaith Food Table in Presque Isle, director of volunteer services Charlene Buzza said she was surprised to find that the number of families served has decreased since this time last year. In 2019, GIFT served 1,222 families during the year while they have thus far served 1,050 families in 2020.

Although she does not know the exact factors behind the decrease, Buzza said that other food services in the Presque Isle region, including Catholic Charities food distribution sites and pantries in smaller towns, might be helping to fulfill people’s needs. 

For GIFT volunteers, the biggest challenge has been trying to meet people’s exact food needs. GIFT has provided curbside pickups since March rather than in-person visits to the pantry. People no longer are allowed to go in and specify what they might need for the month. 

Volunteers typically stock GIFT boxes with shelf stable milk and juice bottles, canned meat, fruits and vegetables, side dishes of hamburger or scalloped potatoes, macaroni and cheese and cooking ingredients for muffins or cake mix.

“When people were able to come in, someone could say that they already had rice at home, so they didn’t need it in their box,” Buzza said. “Now we’re putting a variety of food in and hoping that we’re meeting needs.”

Still the pantry has been busy, with more larger families and senior citizens requesting food boxes, Buzza said. She expects that as the winter continues the pantry, located on Industrial Street, will see more coming for food. Curbside pickups occur at 9 a.m. every Wednesday.

“The $600 relief checks [from the COVID-19 relief bill] will help people a little, but I think we’ll still see a lot of people in need,” Buzza said.

GIFT can be reached at 207-764-8584.

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