Face Time: Mary Plummer — helping feed Bridgton and Naples

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Mary Plummer in front of her Bridgton business, Thriftocracy.

Mary Plummer knows what hunger is like.

For almost five years, she received help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, often known as food stamps. She was a single working mother and even with SNAP she still needed help from a food pantry.

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But the food pantry was only open during her work hours. Her choice: work to earn money or take time off she couldn’t afford and get food. 

Today the Naples resident is a small business owner, but she hasn’t forgotten those days of hunger, that choice between working and getting to an open food pantry.

She and her fiance founded Read to Feed, selling used books online and at her Bridgton thrift store, Thriftocracy, and then using the money from those sales to stock the food pantry at the Songo Locks school in Naples and to supply snack baskets at the Naples Public Library.

She also gives away emergency meal packs at Thriftocracy, keeping the packs stocked with enough food to feed two to four people.

When the store is closed, she leaves some packs outside — because she doesn’t want anyone else to have to chose between work and food.

What is Read to Feed? Read to Feed purchases books in bulk very inexpensively and we resell them online and locally. We purchase food from several sources, including Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Why books and not purses or bikes or plants? Books were not only a fiscally responsible decision for our family, but easily fit with our existing online business model. In addition to selling books to support Read to Feed, we also provide books at low or no cost for various summer reading programs. It’s our way of feeding the mind as well as the body.

How did that start? I spent years working out of poverty, and once I was out, it was a whole new life. I knew there were others like me working as hard as they could and still feeling stuck. I am no saint, but I do feel compelled to go back for others. Hunger and food instability embarrassed me deeply. . . . I found myself trapped in a cycle that felt inescapable. We wanted to find a way to give back to our community that was also a fiscally responsible decision for us.

Read to Feed just marked its first anniversary. How’s it going? It’s a struggle. We continue to try to further conversation in our community. We have expanded the reach of our meals but we do find that we run into a lot of the traditional barriers that start-ups encounter. The biggest barrier we encounter is money. Incorporating as a 501(c)3 nonprofit would give us access to better pricing, grants and additional fundraising opportunities. As a small organization, we have a limited budget — not enough to feed people and incorporate.

Does the Bridgton area have a hunger problem? Maine has a hunger problem! Our country has a hunger problem. I think deeper than the hunger problem that we have data and statistics for is a communication problem. And without open, stigma-free conversations, we can’t progress toward real-world solutions.

What touched you about hunger (rather than another issue, like homelessness or abused animals)? My own personal experience with hunger. I spent almost five years as a SNAP recipient and know firsthand about the stigma of hunger and the need to rise above it.

What is Thriftocracy? Thriftocracy is the physical manifestation of my online resale business. I have been searching out bargains across the state for years and reselling them on a multitude of online platforms. The retail store came after the business had outgrown our home.

Why open a thrift store? The goal was twofold: We had outgrown our home and needed a more appropriate space and wanted to give the Read to Feed project a home.

Tell me about Thriftocracy’s emergency meals: Thriftocracy is our distribution point; the emergency meals are provided by our Read to Feed program. They are available to the public, no questions asked, seven days a week. When we are not in the shop, we leave a meal or two out on the stoop.

Where did that idea come from? When I was a SNAP recipient, I was also a single working mom and I found that generally I could not access a food pantry without missing work. Often I had to balance the need for food with the loss of money from that week’s paycheck. Having ready access to small amounts of food along my route home would have benefited me tremendously.

What are some things in an emergency pack? We try to keep an eye toward nutrition. They contain foods like rice, pasta, canned meat, peanut butter and canned fruits and vegetables. Generally, one meal pack contains enough for a full meal for two to four people.

Thrift stores aren’t known for handing out free food. Have people taken any? Yes! We have been open for one month and have distributed 72 meal packs.

What do you hope comes from Thriftocracy? I would like Thriftocracy to grow and have a positive impact on our community as well as our family.

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