HARRISON — Sandy Swett of the Harrison Food Bank has a message for rural Mainers who are receiving their stimulus funds: you don’t need to spend your money on groceries.

Fresh produce ready for family distribution at the Harrison Food Bank. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“The stimulus was meant for people’s bills,” she said. “They should come here first and not spend it on groceries. It’s meant to keep the economy rolling. There are sufficient supplies at food pantries for people. We will feed them.”

This is a sentiment many people are unfamiliar with. Over the last few weeks thousands of Mainers have lost their jobs. Demand for community support is higher than Swett has seen it. But the Harrison Food Bank has a steady supply of food and she wants people to come get it.

“People have lost their jobs, they’ve been trying to sign up for unemployment and haven’t been successful yet,” she said. “It’s week to week with no money coming in. Food banks are necessary for people who have never had to ask for help before.”

Until COVID-19, she said the Harrison Food Bank served 250-300 families throughout western Maine. But since then that number has leaped to more than 500. And people are driving for an hour or more for food, south from Rumford and north from Parsonsfield. By 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday more than 200 cars driving through the parking lot had been loaded.

Swett founded the Harrison Food Bank in 2017. It has been a mainstay for Mainers facing food insecurity since then, but recently its importance has mushroomed.

Harrison Food Bank volunteer Tara Cleary of South Paris packs groceries for pick-up on Tuesday morning. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“Our volunteers are super dedicated,” she said. “We are working six days a week right now, picking up, sorting, organizing and packing.

“The Rotary from Bridgton and Norway are also delivering to 63 households where people are unable to get out. If someone needs a delivery for next week, they need to reach out to us by Sunday afternoon and schedule it.”

When federal and state officials began directing social distancing and non-essential businesses closed the first effect was on the food supply, Swett said. The Harrison Food Bank was usually able to take in a good variety of quality and specialty foods from the larger grocery chains. But volunteers drove to stores that normally donated surplus and found maybe a box of bread or pastries.

“We were able to get food from Wayside Food Programs and Good Shepherd Food Bank, but they’re also dependent on donations,” she said. “I’m mostly concerned with meat, with fruits and vegetables. We weren’t getting any meat, except deli food, until this week.”

Swett took to the airwaves to get the word out that food insecurity was reaching new highs. The three local network news stations sent out reporters. Then the Today Show called and she was interviewed for another segment that ran on the cable news station MSNBC.

“The news made people aware of what rural communities are facing,” Swett said. The coverage helped: in the last two weeks the Harrison Food Bank has gone from making nine stops on its food pick-up runs to 29.

Harrison Food Bank founder Sandy Swett has worked to put a national spotlight on food insecurity in rural Maine during the coronavirus pandemic. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“A lot of smaller pantries that are normally run out of town halls or churches have closed down and we’ve been able to take on their supply,” she said. “And the South Portland Food Cupboard has been fantastic with their help. They’ve graciously supplied us with left-over food, too.”

Swett was interviewed for the MSNBC Live Show with Stephanie Ruhle alongside the largest food bank in the Bronx, which said it had fed 10,000 that week. She estimates that at the same time the Harrison Food Bank supplied at least 2,000 Mainers and the allotments are larger.

“In cities stores are on every corner. People have public transportation. People can pick up food every few days,” she said. “But rurally, people have to drive long distances.  We pack up a week’s worth of groceries for them at a time.”

Transportation is as much an issue for the food bank as the people it serves. On Tuesday morning its own delivery truck, full of food, broke down in Portland. It’s a regular occurrence.

“Today it seemed to be a battery or starter issue,” Swett said. “I told them to clean the terminals, crank it carefully to see if there a dead spot on the starter, take a hammer and whack the starter. They did get it started.

“It’s 17 years old. We bought it with frame and rust issues but were able to get it fixed up and inspected. The bottom line, two years later it’s rotted out more and we’re still using it. The motor is strong but it’s not dependable. We’ve had to have it towed more than once.”

Recently Tom Boughter, a Harrison resident who owns Maine Scale in Auburn, rented a U-Haul and donated the truck and a driver to help the food bank keep up with its new distribution demand. Swett is also negotiating with an industrial dealer to source a newer, bigger box truck.

“On our truck, pallets have to sit sideways and be moved manually in order to fill it,” she said. “When you’ve got 2,200 pounds of milk on the truck, it’s really difficult but if we have to drive that much further to pick up, we have to make it worth our while and get everything possible loaded.”

Swett does not see things going back to normal anytime soon. She’s concerned about the national meat supply and predictions of shortages. Processors are closed and vegetable producers have not been bringing their food to markets due to the loss of hospitality business.

“I don’t see our role changing much,” she said of plans to reopen the economy. “I know people are protesting to do it. But I just don’t see life going back the way it was immediately. I don’t think everyone will go right back out. I think the economy will be affected for a while. The food banks will continue to have to maintain more food to feed everybody who needs it.”

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