Food pantries upset over rising Good Shepherd Food-Bank fees

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

The Rev. Mike Senecal and Teena Gusler discuss the needs of the Strong Community Table as they shop for food at the Good Shepherd Food-Bank on a recent Friday morning. The two pick up food for the soup kitchen that regularly serves 50 to 60 families three to four times a month.

It’s crowded on distribution day at the Living Word Community Food Cupboard in Dover-Foxcroft.

The line snakes out the door as men and women towing small children wait to get some of the food stored in banana boxes scattered about the floor and on shelves inside the small facility on Route 15. The boxes contain cans of corn and carrots, boxes of macaroni, potato flakes, juice and an assortment of other items.

Nearly every week the pantry line gets longer, a reflection of the scarcity of jobs in this region of the state and the hunger shared by so many families who rely on the pantry food to help nourish them. That nourishment, handed out by volunteers, is donated by residents, businesses and the federal government, and to a lessor degree from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank.

More than 100 miles away in Auburn, several pairs of eyes inspect dented cans and damaged boxes of food inside the gleaming 53,000-square-foot headquarters of Good Shepherd Food-Bank. Foods deemed unfit for human consumption are tossed into boxes on the floor destined for pig farms. Edible items move on a conveyor system to other paid employees and a few volunteers who sort the salvage items and place them inside boxes with bar codes. When full, the boxes are placed on floor-to-ceiling racks that also hold food items purchased wholesale by the food bank.

A portion of the food remains at the Auburn facility — which also houses the corporate offices on the second floor — for distribution directly from there and some is trucked to the food bank’s distribution centers in Brewer and Portland. About 600 all-volunteer soup kitchen and food bank operators throughout Maine, like Pastor Tom Bruce of the Dover-Foxcroft food pantry, pick up the items at one of the three facilities or call in an order.

For Bruce and others who have depended on salvage goods at 16 cents a pound to fill their pantry shelves over the years, visits to the food bank are now becoming more infrequent. That’s because they can’t afford the shared maintenance fees of up to $2 a pound for some products which have been purchased by the food bank to offset a significant loss of salvage goods. Those higher fees, which help cover the food bank’s transportation, warehouse costs and salaries, jeopardize the continued existence of food pantries, some food pantry managers claim.

Over the years, Good Shepherd Food-Bank, the state’s largest hunger relief network, has been the recipient of salvage items donated by major supermarkets and retail stores. Those dented cans and crushed cereal boxes, for example, were provided to food pantries and cupboards at a shared maintenance fee of between 12 cents and 18 cents a pound. Food pantries now pay 16 cents a pound, but the salvage items are becoming more scarce. Supermarkets and retail stores have become more efficient and have improved their processes, leaving fewer dented and crushed items for salvage.

To compensate for the loss of salvage products, Good Shepherd purchases products at wholesale and provides the food to the pantries for a fee. The problem, say food pantry managers, is that the maintenance fee in some cases averages as much as $2 a pound. While Good Shepherd recoups some of its costs, under the food bank’s rules the local pantries are not allowed to charge a fee, nor can they have a donation jar.

“There’s no way any food cupboard could survive for any length of time paying for purchased product,” Bruce said recently. It is not that he wants to charge his clients. What troubles him is that Good Shepherd gets its money in donations from corporations and grants based on the number of clients served at kitchens and pantries like his, and in turn charges fees to the pantries and kitchens. In addition to a $40 yearly membership fee to the food bank, Bruce said he also pays for the fuel to travel to Brewer or Auburn to get the food.

“If you’re buying the food with donated money, then you don’t pass the cost on,” Rusty Roberts, manager of the Tree of Life Food Pantry in Blue Hill, said recently.

“It’s a potential crisis. It’s just showing all kinds of signs of becoming a really big problem,” she said, referring to the increased costs.

Rick Small, president and chief executive officer of Good Shepherd, recognizes those concerns but noted his organization also faces rising costs. He said Good Shepherd solicits donations, collects food throughout the state and distributes it from the food bank’s distribution centers as cheaply as possible.

“We have a wonderful network of people who are out there on the front line feeding people,” Small said. “If it weren’t for the thousands of Maine volunteers in every community working to feed their neighbors, there’s no way we would exist. We’re just the suppliers.”

But Good Shepherd’s work does not come without cost, he noted.

That cost is shared through a maintenance fee to partially cover the inspection and warehouse costs, Small explained during a recent visit to the Bangor Daily News. ”Our goal is to keep the cost to the agencies as low as possible because we know the crunch they’re in and, of course, it puts us in a crunch as well.” Transportation costs are not insignificant, he noted.

Small said the focus of the food bank has not changed over the years. Its mission is to get as much food to the hungry as possible. “We have to be just as responsible as any other well-run business and use good business practices,” he said.

Hunger has been an issue for many Maine families for years and the need is rising, according to Small. A year and a half ago, there were 143,000 Maine residents in need of food compared to more than 200,000 today, which includes one out of every five children. To help alleviate that hunger, he said, Good Shepherd provides enough food for 25,000 meals a day.

“We’ve got a hungry state, ninth hungriest in the nation, and the first hungriest in the Northeast,” Small said. The organization’s future may include the construction of a food processing plant, according to Small. Although the discussion is in its earliest stages, there is a general feeling among state officials and the food bank that that is a missing link which could help reduce hunger in Maine, he noted.

It was a newspaper article on hunger that prompted JoAnn and Ray Pike of Auburn in 1981 to organize a walkathon to start the food bank, which has grown nearly every year since then.

When Small joined the food bank in 2006, the operating budget was $1.3 million and there were 35 employees. It’s now $6 million and most of that is raised through private donations. The $6 million does not include the value of the donated food. There are now 54 employees, according to Clara McConnell, Good Shepherd’s public relations specialist.

In 2009, Good Shepherd’s 990 Internal Revenue Service filing for income tax exemption showed salaries and benefits of $1,307,681.

Small, whose sister-in-law is the current board chairwoman of Good Shepherd, draws a salary of about $70,000.

Roberts of Blue Hill believes the salaries paid to Good Shepherd staff and the construction of the Auburn and Portland facilities since 2001 is part of the problem. She said recently that the food bank has become a “little too corporate. It looks like overhead has become a big problem.”

Good Shepherd let go of some of its volunteers who used to sort the donated items and hired people to take their places, and now it’s charging the food pantries for the cost of that change, Roberts claimed. McConnell said that some of the volunteers were put on the payroll after undergoing special training to identify damaged food products.

Roberts said her big objection is that the food bank gets donated money to buy the food wholesale while the pantries must use their donations to buy the food from the food bank at about 60 cents a pound on average. “Donated money is buying food purchased with donated money. That just seems a little strange to me,” she said.

Roberts said she is fortunate that her nonfaith-based pantry, which serves between 170 and 250 families a week, receives good community support. The pantry also operates a thrift shop and receives donated USDA commodities, but she still feels the pinch from the food bank fees. The shared maintenance fees for one June invoice amounted to nearly $3,000. She believes those fees could cripple small pantries. If the smaller pantries fold because of the rising costs of donated food, the displaced hungry people will look to the larger organizations such as hers to fill their needs. That, in turn, would make it more difficult for her organization to meet its obligations.

One of the most vocal critics of the food bank’s increase in purchased foods in the past has been Pastor Herschel Hafford of ICare Ministries in Millinocket. Hafford learned in April that his food pantry had been terminated from the food bank because he was accused by Small of “only serving a specific religious population” and “of forcing people to attend religious services to get food,” both of which were untrue, Hafford said recently.

That move by Good Shepherd has caused outrage among food pantry managers, including both faith- and nonfaith-based managers. Phil Chicoine, Tri-Town Baptist Food Pantry manager in East Millinocket, said the charges against Hafford were unfounded. Hafford has never forced religion on anybody, Chicoine said, but if anyone needs help spiritually, it is offered, as it is in every other faith-based organization.

“The Gospel is shared at our monthly pantry,” Chicoine said. “We’re not here just to pass food out. We want to help people if we can spiritually, and if they closed Herschel because of that, then they really should close us.”  

Bruce of Dover-Foxcroft also said the charges against Hafford were false and said he too, spreads the Gospel to clients. “What this did was it opened up a can of worms about the high cost of buying food from Good Shepherd,” he said, explaining that in the past only Hafford dared to speak about the costs imposed by the food bank.

While both Bruce and Chicoine praised Good Shepherd for its help over the years, Chicoine said in the last year it has been the USDA that has kept his pantry shelves filled. Both men said they couldn’t afford to buy much of the food purchased by Good Shepherd because of the fees.

Pastor Wayne Perry of the Chester Baptist Food Pantry in Chester, which serves 125 families a week, said he has been associated with Good Shepherd for many years and has seen the changes take place. While he is grateful for the food, Perry said he’s finding it difficult to buy the food purchased by the food bank. In fact, Perry said, at times he can purchase items on sale locally for less than some of the fees imposed by the food bank.

Good Shepherd’s Small said when he joined the organization five years ago, 94 percent of the food it handled was donated salvage, and that meant the organization had to buy about 6 percent in purchased food. Not only has the amount of food increased but the percentage of the food that is purchased has jumped to about 30 percent, according to Small, who noted that his organization also administers two federal supplemental food programs and purchases produce from about 20 farmers.

The fresh farm produce and the purchased foods help to ensure better nutrition for the hungry and help fill the gap from the loss of salvage, according to McConnell. She said the food bank saves what it can for salvage to pass on to food pantries, but not all items are fit for human consumption. She said that in 2010, about 1 million pounds of food had to be disposed of, and of that about 88 percent was sent to pig farmers. The goal is zero waste, she said.

While that goal is admirable, Bruce said another goal should be to reduce the maintenance fees. “What they want to do is recoup their loss of the cost. Now, that’s funny. I can’t,” he said.

The shared maintenance fees are too high and should be 16 cents a pound, Hafford said. He wondered if contributors were aware that their donations are used by Good Shepherd to purchase food, which is in turn is sold to the food pantries that serve the hungry.

Hafford, who previously served on Good Shepherd’s board of directors, said he has been serving the needy in the Millinocket area for 13 years and continues to feed 200 needy families. He said he never had a complaint until he raised concerns about the high food costs imposed by Good Shepherd. The food bank’s bylaws allow relief agencies a three-month probation to correct a problem before termination, but that wasn’t offered to him, he said.

“He believes in what he is doing and he has done a lot of good in that community. I’m not in disagreement with any of that,” Small said of Hafford. “I just wish he had found another way to have handled this.” To be reinstated, Hafford must address the compliance issues, he said.

Hafford remains firm in his belief that the maintenance fees have got to change. “This isn’t about revenge, this isn’t about getting even, this isn’t about hurting someone. This is about getting the food back into the hands of the people,” Hafford said. “I’m not on this campaign for the sake of getting us reconciled as much as I am getting the cost for the food pantries from Fort Kent to Kittery down so they can go back there and buy food at a reasonable price.”

Reprinted with permission from the Bangor Daily News.

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Comments

KATHRYN PENDLETON's picture

70,000 a year to the sister-in-law

For doing exactly what? That alone is very fishy. And why did they stop paying volunteers in food? I know several folks that that alone helped and gave them a bit of dignity. more of a hand up that a hand out. I'd also prefer to pray before being given food than praying because I did'nt have any.

 's picture

The salary is for the CEO,

The salary is for the CEO, not the Chairwoman. Further, IRS codes prohibit organizations from paying volunteers in food, it's akin to paying someone below minimum wage, it's just illegal. You're welcome to call your Congressional leaders to change the law if you like.

 's picture

you are correct plus

the Food Bank gave food to their volunteers as long as they could....The USDA, or some other organization, (can't remember now)basically told the Food Bank if that practice continued they would no longer donate to them. It was unfortunate as many of the volunteers were people that needed assistance yet felt better about themselves working for it. The Food Bank attempted to continue running with the volunteers but they dwindled down. Many traveled to volunteer and the round trip once or twice a week wasn't worth the gas as now they had to also purchase more food. Catch 22 all the way around. (Volunteers from other towns were also told they could only receive food from 'that' food pantry in Auburn once a month which most people could do in their own towns)

 's picture

We can afford to give the rich tax breaks?

Why should a family that comes to a food panty 3 or 4 times a month to get a good meal be forced to give more of its income to the state so that the wealthy can enjoy a tax cut from the Govenor.

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