HARRISON — In a year of unprecedented hardship due to the tanking economy and a global pandemic, the Harrison Food Bank has expanded its reach and mission in rural Maine’s fight against food insecurity. It continues to support more and more families in need as COVID-19 resurges this fall.

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

Operations Manager  and founder Sandy Swett said some weeks as many as 500 come to the facility Tuesday afternoons for a week’s worth of food. A slower week will still bring well over 300.

It is not just people from Oxford County communities who rely on it either. They come from York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and Franklin counties and even New Hampshire, with some traveling more than 70 miles one way. Layoffs at the Jay and Rumford paper mills are sure to bring in more clients.

For all these reasons Swett anticipates even more need as colder weather sets in.

“Power and heating bills go up in winter,” she said. “Historically, summer is slower for us. People don’t tend to eat or cook as much in summer. With a new wave of cases and some businesses not able to recover, people are hurting.”

Expanding pressures

Swett’s immediate concern is Thanksgiving. Last year the food bank handed out 325 meals, including turkey, side dishes and desserts. Forced to buy turkeys and potatoes because the previous suppliers were not able to provide them, the holiday came with a bill of $5,000.

“Good Shepherd Food Bank does not stock turkeys,” she said. “They will accept donations of them, but they don’t buy them.”

This year, Swett expects to distribute 500 holiday meals, at a cost that could reach $7,000. It will not be easy, as some of her financial benefactors have been struggling themselves.

The United Methodist Church in Harrison was a big source of support last year, but with church services and fundraisers being mostly canceled by COVID-19 the group is not likely to get close to its previous level.

Restaurants that have donated food in the past have adjusted their inventories down by 50% or more because of public gathering restrictions, with some deciding to either close for the season or close for good.

Swett is hitting the phone and networking to prepare for the holiday crunch. But she knows that it will be weeks before other organizations will know if and how much they will be able to contribute to Thanksgiving meal baskets.

“They can’t really move until the last minute,” she said. “It depends on what inventories are for them, and what their sales are. Last year we had to rush to Hannaford and fill up carts to have enough. It could be that way again.

“We need all the help we can get to make sure no family is without Thanksgiving this year,” she said.

Expanding services

Swett has spent much of this year finding ways to expand the Harrison Food Bank’s outreach. With grants from Good Shepherd, Healthy Oxford Hills and other donations she was able to find two refrigerated delivery trucks at auction. The vehicles have been delivered but still need to be inspected and carefully gone through to make sure they won’t require repairs to be road worthy.

“These trucks will make it possible to start a senior living delivery program,” Swett said. “We’ve reached out to a number of independent assisted living communities to make sure that population isn’t overlooked.”

Many senior living residents do not have transportation, nor are they able to physically handle the heavy boxes of food distributed at the food bank. And they do not need standard portions.

“The older folks, they don’t need a five-pound bag of potatoes,” she said. They might be able to eat two or three a week. Once the trucks are ready to work, volunteers will start building smaller portion packages and we will deliver them.”

Thanks to a committed group of volunteers and businesses in Maine and beyond, the shelves at the Harrison Food Bank are never empty. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

Expanding fight

After being featured on “Today” on NBC and “MSNBC Live with Stephanie Ruehle”, Swett feels fortunate she has found new contacts not just in Maine but across the country in her fight against food insecurity. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, dispatched assistance in the form of a grant writer to help Swett send proposals to organizations she had not previously known about.

“He heard how hard we are working here and sent some of his staff to help,” Swett said. “Others have been moved to send financial support. There is someone who lives in Florida, but she loves Maine and saw us on the news. She sends regular donations and now we’ve become pen pals.

“Another local resident lost her dog early during the pandemic,” she said. “She was concerned about the pets belonging to people who don’t have money to feed them, so she sent me $250 to stock pet food and told me to let her know when I needed more.”

The Harrison Food Bank is not just a provider of meals, either. Volunteers recently opened the space on the second floor as a thrift store where everything is free. Clients can pick up clothes, household items and appliances and furniture when the food bank is open Tuesdays.

“People are calling me now to donate,” Swett said. “We had all the contents of a camp on Long Lake donated to us. A single mother in Norway, whose children had never had their own beds, received a set of like-new bunk beds. Another camp was set to be razed but they contacted us and we were able to pull out the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and fixtures to be used in a Habitat for Humanity project. And the interior pine paneling too.”

Expanding expenses

Providing extended services to Mainers in need exponentially affects the food bank’s expenses. Before putting the additional refrigerated trucks on the road, Swett says annual insurance has been close to $7,000. Then there is transportation fuel that will ratchet up when they start making more and farther deliveries. The electricity bill is $500 a month. Dry goods – boxes, bags, cleaning supplies – keep increasing in cost and quantity.

The food bank’s headquarters has poor internet service. Swett has resisted adding high-speed Wi-Fi, which would cost more than $800 a year, in an effort to keep funds in the food acquisition pipeline. But as she makes and takes more calls soliciting and accepting assistance from across the country she knows that time she spends with bad phone service means lost support coming in.

“I have tried lobbying service providers to donate some level of internet but have not been able to secure it,” she said. “We are one dropped 911 call away from trouble.”

Swett is thankful for the kindness and assistance businesses and individuals alike have shown for the food bank.

“All together, we have about 150 volunteers helping out, with a core group of 30 constantly at work,” she said. “We have a new volunteer coordinator (who) schedules help for everything I ask her to. One person maintains our drop-off sites and deliveries of returnable bottles, 100% of which pays for fuel.”

There is much she is thankful for.

“The volunteers who sort and inventory all non-food donations and those who went into the camps to extract household furnishings and appliances,” Swett said. “The man in charge of trash and recycling is in his 80s. Everyone who receives and packages the food.”

“And the generosity from the businesses who provide us with financial, product and service donations. I really have a lot of thanks to give” she said.

 

WJ Wheeler Insurance donated a carport to make the Harrison Food Bank distribution safer and more efficient during inclement weather. Submitted photo

Harrison Food Bank benefactors

Alliance Trucking, Walpole, MA. Donated 2013 Max Force 22’ box truck

Suburban Propane, Harrison. Donated tank to run refrigerated storage trailer and first 200 gallons. Soliciting donations from other companies.

Hilltop Handspun, Lovell. Financial donation.

East Coast Service Center/Maine Dealer’s Alliance. Provided ongoing service, donating parts and labor and helped facilitate International Truck donation.

Copp Motors, Cumberland. Towed the food bank’s truck in March for $200, normal charge is $1,000.

Celebrations by Us

Oxford Hills and Bridgton Rotary Clubs. Shared the responsibilities of making home deliveries to food bank clients and provide financial support.

Bolsters Mills Ladies Guild, Harrison. Financial donation.

United Methodist Church, Harrison. Financial support.

United Parish Congregational Church, Harrison. Financial and other support, with Pastor Franklin Anderson an original Harrison Food Bank board member.

Good Shepherd Food Bank, Auburn. Provided financial support and supplies.

Oxford Hills Helping Hands, Oxford. Donated finances and supplies while closed during the pandemic.

Cumberland County Commission, Portland. Financial donation.

Second Congregational Church, Norway. Donation

Troy Morse. Donation

Rob Moore Excavation, Bridgton. Dug test holes for food bank expansion.

Family Scoops, Bridgton. Financial donation.

Chute’s Café, Casco. Cleaned out freezer and donated everything when forced to closed due to pandemic.

RW Merrill Electric and AC Construction, Harrison. Donated excavation and electrical services to set up the refrigerated storage truck.

Maine Scale, Auburn. Rented replacement truck and provided a driver for three days to keep the food bank operating. Business owner Tom Boughter has joined the food bank’s board of directors.

P&K Sand and Gravel, Naples. Employee Larry Newell arrangeed for the food bank to fill its box truck at P&K’s. Newell has been making personal donations toward fuel and business owner Bruce Plummer matches it.

Tripura Foundation, Pittsburgh, PA. Financial donation.

Hannaford, Scarborough. Provided food rescue, delivery supplies, shelving, storage and more.

Norway Savings, Norway. Financial donation.

Union Mutual Fire Insurance Co./Oberg Insurance Agency, Bridgton. Financial donations.

D.R. Fournier, Inc., Oxford. Financial donation.

Helen Robillard Realty, South Paris. Financial donation.

Pro-Care, Woburn, MA. Financial donations.

Direct Cremation of Maine, Belfast. Financial donation.

Rick Danzig Painting, Norway. Financial donation.

Cooper Farms, West Paris. Food donation.

Thalian Club/First Congregational Church, Norway. Financial donation.

Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School Key Club, Paris. Financial donation.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Fryeburg. Financial donation.

Kendall C. and Anna Ham Charitable Foundation, North Conway, NH, Financial donation and grant for food bank expansion.

Barber Foods, Portland. Donated pallets of chicken.

Maine Farmers’ Exchange, Presque Isle. Donated food and other items.

Pineland Farms Dairy Company, Bangor. Donated food.

Meadowbrook Horseback Riding Group, Naples. Financial donation.

G.P. Technologies, So Carolina. Donation.

Health Oxford Hills, Oxford. Grant for senior delivery transportation.

Maine Community Foundation. Financial grant.

Crooked River Counseling, Bridgton/Rumford. Donation.

Geico Philanthropic Foundation. Financial grant.

Shambroom Savastio Charitable Trust. Financial grant.

Paris Farmers Union, South Paris. Discounted pet food.

Bridgton Redemption, Bridgton. Provided space for bottle storage and financial support.

WJ Wheeler Insurance, South Paris/Bethel. Donated carport for parking lot distribution.

Harvest Hills Animal Shelter, Fryeburg; Responsible Pet Care of Oxford Hills, Paris; Greater Androscoggin Humane Society, Lewiston. Donated pet food/supplies.

Numerous community food pantries and restaurants donated food when forced to close due to the pandemic.

Numerous individuals provided support.

Anyone interested in supporting the Harrison Food Bank, or in need of help, can visit its website.

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