LEWISTON — As people streamed through the line at St. Mary’s Food Pantry on Tuesday morning to grab Thanksgiving boxes, the first face they saw was Renay McCluskey on her first day of volunteering.

She’d just survived living two and a half years in a tent in the Lewiston woods with her dog and fiance. The food pantry’s help had been invaluable.

Four months ago, she finally found an apartment. It was time to give back.

“As far as helping people, they’re just amazing,” said McCluskey, 35, taking a quick break from grabbing squash, bread and desserts.

McCluskey, a dozen other volunteers and pantry staff handed out 245 boxes on Tuesday and were prepped to hand out as many as 250 more on Wednesday.

Operations Manager Mia Poliquin Pross said demand has more than doubled at the 15-year-old food bank. It’s feeding more than 1,100 people a week, and is on pace to give out 765,000 pounds of food during 2017.

Last year it averaged 583 people a week and 350,000 pounds of food during the year.

“Last year was a big jump over the year before, and that was a big jump over the year before,” Poliquin Pross said.

She only has theories as to why. The state has trimmed the number of people who qualify for food stamps. She’s seeing asylum-seekers who aren’t able to work while their cases are pending.

The average client family size grew in the past year from 3.2 to 4.1. Some have young children, some are disabled, some come in only once.

“We don’t ask a ton of questions,” Poliquin Pross said. “There’s definitely just an increase in need.”

Food largely comes in through the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn where it’s either free or deeply discounted, rounded out by regular pickups at Hannaford and Shaw’s, individual and business donations, and farmers who let them pick the ends of their crops.

More than half of the food given out this year — 450,000 pounds — has been fresh fruit and vegetables.

“People love it,” Poliquin Pross said. “They thought they were getting a few cans of soup,” and instead, they’re leaving with apples, melons and squash.

With so much growing demand versus flat, $45,000 annual funding and no new space or staff, she worries a little about 2018. It isn’t so much the cost of food, Poliquin Pross said, as much as the costs associated with giving it away: managing volunteers, transportation, refrigeration and staffing.

On Tuesday, the food pantry volunteers were in full force.

In a room off to one side, Anita Boulay of Auburn and Claudette Violette of Lewiston, both volunteers for close to 20 years, packed boxes with canned vegetables, cranberry sauce, gravy packets, stuffing and potatoes.

“For the ones who don’t have anything, it’s something,” Boulay said.

A friend got her into volunteering.

“I work at home, I don’t see anybody, I don’t know what day it is,” said Boulay, who has a business making life-like dolls. “The only day I know now is Tuesday,” her regular pantry day.

Violette said after she lost the use of her right hand, “I said, ‘Hey, there’s got to be more to this life.'”

She has volunteered stuffing envelopes, making phone calls in French, and here at the food pantry.

“It’s something besides just watching the commercials on TV,” Violette said. “It also gives you something to look forward to.”

Jaz Wilson, who works in the nutrition program, started as a volunteer. She offered squash to each person passing by in line.

“No other jobs feel as good and connects you as deeply to the community,” Wilson said.

When she broke her knee, people who use the pantry would spot her out and about, and “even if they didn’t speak English, they’re asking, ‘How’s your leg?'” she said. “Food unites and brings everyone together.”

McCluskey hadn’t been homeless too long before someone told her about the food pantry. She said she was stuck living in a tent after finding no landlords that would allow her dog, Pookie, a 6-year-old German Shepherd/Chinese Shar-Pei mix.

“I couldn’t find someone to rent to me with her,” McCluskey said. “She’s my big baby. If people only knew — they’re like, ‘Get rid of her.’ Well, get rid of your kid, because that’s what it’s like.”

In addition to an understanding ear, she said staff helped in other ways, such as giving her a frying pan to use on her burner so she could cook tent-side.

“I didn’t have a refrigerator, but you could drink the milk kind of quick,” McCluskey said. “Very good people, big hearts, they do a lot for people here.

“It was nice to be able to help people who’ve helped me. It was nice to be on the other side,” she said at the end of her first shift.

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Casey and Amanda Graham of Lewiston get in line with their children, Elijah, 6, Sephia, 8, and Malakie, 3, at St. Mary’s Food Pantry to receive a Thanksgiving box of food Tuesday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Renay McCluskey of Lewiston, volunteering for her first shift, helps people with their Thanksgiving box of food at St. Mary’s Food Pantry in Lewiston on Tuesday. The pantry was invaluable in helping her when she lived in a tent for the past two and a half years, McCluskey said. She wanted to give back. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

People line up outside the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center to receive a Thanksgiving box of food from the center’s food pantry on Tuesday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Volunteers Anita Boulay, right, and Claudette Violette sort food at the St. Mary’s Food Pantry in Lewiston on Tuesday. Boulay and Violette have been volunteering at the pantry for 20 years. “We are part of the furniture,” Boulay said. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A volunteer picks apples to hand out at the St. Mary’s Food Pantry in Lewiston on Tuesday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

St. Mary’s Food Pantry in Lewiston, by the numbers:

1,139: Avg. number of people fed each week, 2017.

583: Avg. number of people fed each week, 2016.

765,000: Pounds of food it’s on pace to give out in 2017 (includes 450,000 pounds of fresh produce).

350,000: Pounds of food given out in 2016 (includes 150,000 pounds of fresh produce).

5,500: Hours logged by volunteers, 2017.

3,000: Hours logged by volunteers, 2016.

Pantry wish list (outside of monetary donations):

Utility carts and durable reusable shopping bags.

Diapers and toiletries.

Toilet paper.

Volunteers with strong backs and trucks to help with weekly retail pickups.

Long-range wish list: A box truck. Right now, on a pickup day from Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, they’re making 3-4 trips to ferry everything over to stock food pantry shelves.

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