Donated vegetables await distribution last weekend at the Preble Street Food Program in Portland. Empty store shelves at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic affected local food pantries, which partially rely on supermarkets for donations. Some, however, received unexpected donated food from Portland restaurants and distributors during the initial COVID-19 closures last spring. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Mary Zwolinski was working at one of Wayside Food Programs’ mobile pantries last spring when she saw something that shocked her.

At a food distribution site in Sanford, the executive director of Wayside said she witnessed more cars lined up for free food than she had ever seen before. It was the first time the severity of the coronavirus crisis hit her.

“I was shaken,” Zwolinski said. “It just kept coming, and people were so afraid.”

While the demand for food calmed down for a while this summer, Zwolinski said there has recently been an uptick in aid requests. 

Don Morrison, operations manager at Wayside, said he received new requests for food every day last week, from individuals and organizations. More than one of them, he said, had stopped receiving food from Wayside in recent months, but asked to be put back on its distribution list.

Wayside Food Programs mostly distributes food to Mainers through 60 community partner organizations. Those partners include food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other social service agencies throughout southern Maine. Wayside also runs five mobile food pantries, and a healthy snacks program for children. 

A Preble Street volunteer packs bagged meals at the organization’s Oxford Street soup kitchen on Saturday, Nov. 21. This year, other food pantries like Project FEED are directing those in need to get Thanksgiving meals from Preble Street because they cannot provide their typical holiday offerings during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Zwolinski said she and other staff members are keeping their eyes on the steady increase in demand, which she thinks could be due to a variety of factors, including a surge in COVID-19 cases statewide or the expiration of unemployment benefits.

The experience at Wayside aligns with national trends. Last week, CNBC reported details of a recent study that found approximately four in 10 Americans experienced food insecurity for the first time during the pandemic.

The study, conducted by market research company OnePoll and released by Two Good Yogurt, also found 79 percent of the 2,000 Americans surveyed have struggled to find the food support they need.

The increased need has also been seen in other parts of Maine. According to Consumer Reports, Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn has seen a 7 percent increase in visitors who own their own homes since the start of the pandemic.

Kristin Miale, president of Good Shepherd, told the magazine that Mainers seeking help from her organization have a “higher income than was typical prior to COVID,” and many have never before had to seek food assistance.

Even before the pandemic, Maine had the highest rate of food insecurity in New England. At this time last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the national rate of food insecurity was 11.1 percent, while in Maine, 13.6 percent of households were food insecure.

Additionally, according to Full Plates Full Potential, 43 percent of Maine’s public school children rely on school meals to get the food they need. 

Portland’s increased need for food assistance has also been evident at Preble Street Food Programs. Joe Conroy, senior director of food programs and facilities at Preble Street, last week said his organization “has provided record amounts of food” to local people in need since the pandemic began, and is on track to provide 1 million meals in 2020.

Morrison said the beginning of the pandemic was especially stressful at Wayside, because while demand was increasing, food supply from its usual sources, like supermarkets, was sparse.

“If they don’t have anything to sell, they don’t have anything to donate,” he said. “So that first month was very scary.”

Wayside Food Programs Operations Manager Don Morrison, left, and Executive Director Mary Zwolinski with donated peppers at Wayside’s Walton Street office in Portland on Friday, Nov. 20. Zwolinski and Morrison said requests for food aid have increased recently after a decline in need during the summer. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Fortunately, he added, because many restaurants were closed, much of their unneeded food went to Wayside. Food distributors like Sysco also dropped off shipments, because they suddenly had “warehouses full of food” they had to get rid of, Morrison said.

Morrison also said USDA has increased its food donation to pantries. Wayside usually does six distributions a year of food from the agency’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, but has done one monthly in 2020 and has received additional federal shipments to distribute even more.

At Project FEED, volunteer pantry operations manager Delene Perley said her food pantry has faced issues unrelated to the pandemic recently.

Project FEED, which stands for Food Emergency Exchange Depot, is an emergency food pantry in the basement of Woodfords Congregational UCC Church. After closing initially at the start of the pandemic, it opened with reduced hours in June, offering curbside pickup by appointment only.

But approximately a month ago the church flooded and had an electrical failure, forcing staff to close the building and Project FEED to store its perishable food at a food pantry in South Portland.

Now, Perley said, Project FEED is operating out of St. Ansgar Lutheran Church on Woodford Street and distributing food from a small parking lot. Perley said she saw an increase in demand after the program reopened at its temporary location, mostly from local caseworkers retrieving food for their clients.

Project FEED usually distributes 60 free boxes containing turkeys and fixings every Thanksgiving to its clients. But it will have to move its perishables from South Portland soon, so it is now directing people to pick up Thanksgiving boxes from the Preble Street Resource Center Soup Kitchen.

Conroy said Preble Street anticipated giving out up to “1,000 turkeys and harvest pantry boxes” to the same number of local families ahead of Thanksgiving. On Nov. 21, the Oxford Street facility was bustling, and there was a line of people waiting outside for the boxes.

Preble Street will also be giving hot holiday meals to people in local shelters and on the streets, and will be serving turkey dinners to homeless youth and women staying at its Teen Center and Florence House.

Wayside has also had to reconfigure its Thanksgiving services this year. The organization typically hosts a 300-person dinner at The Portland Club on State Street, but will instead distribute pre-cooked meals on Nov. 25 through a partnership with 10 Congress Square.

Sign-ups for that distribution reached capacity as of Nov. 20.

Despite the many changes 2020 has brought, both Project FEED and Wayside have an adequate number of volunteers, although schedules and procedures have changed to maintain safety. 

Ultimately, Zwolinski said, she is grateful for people who support the program, including volunteers and donors.

“Nobody ever said ‘I’m not coming back’ so it’s been great,” she said. “We haven’t stopped.”