Jeff Newell of Durham spaces begonias at the Whiting Farm in Auburn in 2019. Newell volunteers at the farm with members of the Androscoggin Gleaners, a group that works with farms to provide surplus produce to people who can use it. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

LEWISTON — Even as a retired volunteer, things got a lot busier for Jeff Newell once COVID-19 arrived.

Newell, a retired Hannaford store manager, used to spend a couple days a week collecting surplus produce and distributing it to local organizations. Now, he’s added direct meal deliveries on top of it.

It’s practically a full-time job, but the Durham resident doesn’t mind.

“There’s a lot of need out there,” he said last week. “Monday through Thursday I’m pretty much booked.”

Lately, the local food system has seen ripple effects from the pandemic, which has especially impacted low-income residents who rely on food pantries or other sources for fresh food.

St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston has been offering its food pantry in the parking lot of its Bates Street base, but Newell said a number of families don’t have the means to get there on a regular basis, or may not feel comfortable.

So, Newell and other volunteers have been bringing meals directly to those in need. Newell chose Wednesdays to make deliveries — normally around 20.

He doesn’t spend much time striking up conversations with the people receiving the food, for obvious reasons, but he said he does develop relationships. He delivers to a lot of the same people every week.

Sarah Ullman, community programs manager for St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, said volunteers like Newell are “invaluable” to the organization.

“During our normal operation and especially in the face of COVID, volunteers like Jeff have stepped up in a big way,” she said. “We’re able to provide hundreds of people with food each week in our pantry and now through home deliveries because we have amazing, dedicated volunteers giving their time to help us meet food access needs in the community.”

On other days, Newell is delivering fresh produce all over.

Newell helped found the Androscoggin Gleaners roughly three years ago, after taking part in the master gardeners program of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The volunteers take surplus produce from local farms and get it to those in need.

They began gleaning at Whiting Farm in Auburn, but have since added more farms and more active members. The group gleaned more than 10,000 pounds worth of produce in 2019, and have collected 8,200 pounds so far in 2020. The food goes to partners at six regional food pantries and 12 low-income housing communities.

Through the cooperative extension, Newell has also volunteered at the Durham Community School, helping run its school gardens. He used to work directly with students to grow the food and donate it to a Lisbon-based nonprofit, but that’s shifted due to COVID-19.

Now, food grown in the Durham gardens — harvested by Newell two days a week — is given to students and their families during a summer meal program.

“I enjoy it,” Newell said about volunteering.

He said his interest in the local food system began during his time at Hannaford, when he first established relationships with local soup kitchens and other organizations.

Newell, 69, was a store manager for some three decades at several locations.

“We’d have (food) ready for these volunteers to come pick up every day, and that’s kind of where it started in my mind,” he said. “I always enjoyed doing it and was always supportive of it.”

He said when he retired six years ago, he still wanted to “help provide food for people who are food insecure.”

Newell is also a member of the Good Food Council of L-A.

When asked how long he plans to volunteer, he said, “As long as I’m physically able.”

“Right now I’m certainly up for it,” he said.

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of their time to make their community a better place? Then nominate them for Kudos. Send their name and the place where they do their good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] and we’ll do the rest.


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