Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

Don Bisson, director of the Biddeford Food Pantry, holds the entrance door of the pantry as volunteers exit and enter on Thursday. For nearly 13 years, Bisson has devoted his time, energy and passion to making sure food is available for those in need in the community. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The coronavirus pandemic has created challenges for Maine’s food pantries, which are dealing with greater demand from clients and a drop in donations from grocery stores.

But for Don Bisson, director of the Biddeford Food Pantry, the motto remains unchanged: “If you come to get food, you won’t go home empty-handed.”

For nearly 13 years, Bisson has devoted his time, energy and passion to making sure food is available for those in need in the community. Bisson, 67, is emblematic of those who run the roughly 250 food pantries in Maine, of which about three-quarters, including the Biddeford pantry, are run on an all-volunteer basis.

When the virus outbreak accelerated into Maine in March, it forced Bisson to briefly close the pantry’s doors. He had to figure out how he and his all-volunteer staff, most of whom are senior citizens, could do their charitable work and keep themselves and the roughly 600 families they service each month safe.

“When the pandemic first happened we were closed for a week and I said, ‘This is really crazy, there are people that are hungry and this is not the time to close. We need to provide for these people who lost their jobs and they’re hungry,'” Bisson said. “The first day we reopened (March 31), we had 93 families come that first day. On an average normal day we get 40, 47 families, somewhere around there.”

Coronavirus has led to a surge of 100,000 unemployment claims in Maine. That means more people in need in a state that already had one of the nation’s highest rates for food insecurity.

At the same time, pantries’ sources of food have decreased and become more expensive. Donated food from grocery stores forms the backbone of Maine’s food support systems. But grocery stores have struggled to keep their shelves full for their retail customers, and that means they have significantly less excess food to donate.

Lenny Casilla, right, hands a box of food to Logan Frey at the Biddeford Food Pantry on Thursday. Casilla and Frey are among the volunteers at the food pantry, which has seen a spike in clients since the coronavirus outbreak. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Biddeford Food Pantry, like most pantries, gets its food from two major sources. It buys the majority of its goods at a steeply discounted price from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, a large nonprofit that partners with nearly 500 pantries, meal sites, and other school or health-care-related food providers. It also receives direct donations from local grocers. Bisson said he typically gets donated meat, produce, and baked goods from local Hannaford and Walmart stores.

“But because of the pandemic, they’re selling out, so their donations are down,” Bisson said of the stores.

The same thing has been happening, on a larger scale, at the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which operates two large warehouse distribution centers, one in Auburn and another in Hampden.

“Seventy percent of our food that goes out is traditionally donated food,” said Kristen Miale, the president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “Hannaford is far and away the largest provider of food for our entire network and overall the whole retail food donation is down about 50 percent in Maine. There’s no excess food to be had.”

Bisson said he’s seen a 25 percent increase in client requests in Biddeford. Miale said 70 percent of Good Shepherd’s partners have seen an increase, ranging from 10 percent to over 50 percent.

The combination of greater demand and less donated food has driven up costs for individual pantries. Bisson said he had to spend $1,800 at a dollar store to restock needed items. Shopping retail, even at a dollar store, is a “no-no” for a pantry, he said.

Statewide the increased cost caused by fewer donations and national disruptions to the food chain is striking. Miale said Good Shepherd is spending $2 million in a 10-day period to cover projected needs for April and May, and projects an increased cost of $6.3 million over a six-month period. “Normally we buy $1.5 million worth of food to cover the whole year,” she said.

Miale said Good Shepherd will not be passing on those costs to its customers. Instead during the crisis, Good Shepherd is waving its normal purchase fee, which equates to about 7 cents per pound of food.

“There’s no way we could pass on a $2 million expense to our partners,” Miale said. “Everything is going out free and that’s partly because we know they’re having to buy cleaning supplies and masks for staff and volunteers are using their own gas money to make deliveries.”

Don Bisson, director of the Biddeford Food Pantry, says greater demand at grocery stores has made it harder for him to stock his pantry. “We’ve had a much more difficult time getting food with the Walmart and Hannaford shelves empty.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A Biddeford native, Bisson lived in Manhattan as a young man. He worked for Verizon in the World Trade Center as a part-time manager and also doing installation and repair. At 45, in 1998, some three years before the Twin Towers were destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bisson was offered and accepted an early retirement package.

He says he didn’t retire so he could stop working. Rather, the 1971 Biddeford High graduate wanted to return to Maine. One day he wandered into the Biddeford Food Pantry to offer some volunteer assistance. Opened in 1981, the same year Good Shepherd Food Bank was founded, the Biddeford pantry is believed to be the oldest food pantry in Maine. Over subsequent volunteer shifts, Bisson began making suggestions on ways to improve the organization.

“I came because I wanted to do something that would help the Lord and the Lord’s people,” Bisson said. “Slowly but surely, I would say, ‘Do you mind if we do things a little differently?’ And then I came in here and took over the place because it was in such disarray and I continued on.”

The Biddeford Food Pantry is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. On its 990 tax forms, Bisson is listed as averaging 30 hours a week of work. He earns no salary or stipend. To hear longtime volunteer Joan Fecteau tell it, Bisson likely works well over 30 hours most weeks.

“He goes over and above. A lot of times, even though the pantry’s closed for clients, he gets called for people that want to donate something,” Fecteau said. “Or even sometimes people will call and they need food and he comes over and opens the door for them. If someone needs food, he won’t refuse them.”

Bisson is a tireless advocate for the pantry, said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant.

“He’s really compassionate and really cares about his clients and he’ll do anything to help them out,” Casavant said. “So for me, whenever I can, I try to steer some help in his direction because I know he performs a great service.”

Even in the best of times, running a food pantry is difficult because of an ever-present need.

Volunteer Ron Hebert places a bag of groceries on a table outside the Biddeford Food Pantry on Thursday. “We’re doing everything outside now and we’re also doing deliveries,” says Don Bisson, director of the pantry. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Food insecurity affects 13.6 percent of Maine’s households compared to the national average of 11.7 percent, according to the September 2019 report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. That equates to roughly 175,000 Mainers who need pantries and meal sites.

Rising unemployment and poverty as a result of coronavirus stay-at-home orders could result in up to an additional 67,000 Mainers experiencing food insecurity, according to Good Shepherd.

Miale said she hopes that the experience of walking through grocery stores with empty shelves will help people be better able to understand what it feels like to have to worry about procuring food.

“We’ve all gotten a glimpse of what food insecurity feels like, not knowing if something is going to be there. That’s a heightened sense of stress and anxiety,” Miale said. “For people who rely on food pantries, that’s their everyday existence. That’s not right and we need to do something about it.”

In the short term, feeding the hungry will be the job of dedicated volunteers like Bisson.

Miale said it’s people like “Don, who truly do this with deep passion,” that are a strength of Maine’s hunger-relief system. But she’s also seen instances where reliance on a single person makes the system vulnerable.

“We’ve had many food pantries that have closed their doors overnight because the person was too tired or they pass away and a whole community loses food,” Miale said.

Though he doesn’t take full credit, Bisson has set up the Biddeford Food Pantry to avoid that fate. Threatened with a 250 percent rent increase in 2017, Bisson mobilized a fundraising effort that generated $55,000 in two months, providing the necessary down payment for the Biddeford pantry to buy its current building with a 30-year mortgage.

“That was a miracle is what it was. God has been here,” Bisson said. “We purchased our place and it’s really wonderful because it’s our own facility and after I leave it will still be here. The mission of feeding God’s people will be there.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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