AUBURN — The Good Shepherd Food-Bank is standing behind its decision last month to end a 12-year relationship with a church pantry in Millinocket, saying it hopes to find another agency willing to help the mill town’s hungry families.
“Our hearts have not changed a bit,” said Rick Small, executive director of the Auburn-based food bank. “We still serve 600-plus agencies. And we continue to seek the least number of barriers we can.”
In a letter dated April 4, the food bank told Pastor Herschel Hafford of Millinocket’s I Care Ministries that it was severing ties. The letter cited the food bank’s policy of giving food to people regardless of religion. It’s part of an agreement signed by each of the food bank’s member agencies across Maine.
Hafford, a former member of the food bank’s board of directors, said he never broke its policy.
“We serve Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes and Buddhists,” he said. In all, 184 families are served by the pantry. “Their religion doesn’t matter.”
Small declined to talk about the specifics of the case, saying that Good Shepherd has a long-standing policy that prevents such a discussion.
“We will not discuss an individual agency’s noncompliance,” he said.
Small said there was no initiative to reduce the number of agencies, which has almost doubled in the past decade. Besides trying to find another relief agency in Millinocket, Good Shepherd has been driving up to the rural mill town and handing out free food from its “foodmobile.” It also continues to assist two other groups in East Millinocket.
“The people up there need our help,” Small said.
Hafford agrees. The pastor said he was close to the late food bank founder, JoAnn Pike, and he had grown frustrated with Good Shepherd’s business-like approach in recent years.
To Small, the changes are a response to need.
This year, the food bank will likely move about 12 million pounds of food through its doors, despite escalating costs due to the fact that less food is being donated to the charity and more must be purchased. More staff is needed to keep up with the growth and the food handlers, who were once paid with food, must, according to state law, be paid hourly wages.
When Small came to the food bank five years ago, operating the charity cost about $1.3 million. Now, it is approaching $6 million. The charity has 56 employees, most of whom are full-time staffers.
“It takes more personnel to do this work,” he said. “We pay them fairly, though we’re well below the national average.”
To help cover its costs, member agencies — food pantries, soup kitchens and other charities — pay for the food they take. For most donated food, the cost is 16 cents per pound. For fresh produce and bread, there is no charge. And for food that the food bank must buy, a portion of the cost is passed on.
Pastor Hafford says it is all too much.
“They mark it up and resell it to the food pantries,” he said. “We have bought hundreds of thousands of pounds (of food) literally at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars over 12 years.”
Small said the donations and the price of sales are needed to keep the charity afloat.
“I think we try hard,” he said. “People know what a meal costs.”