EAST WINTHROP — Volunteers at a food pantry that provides to more than 100 local families say a decision by Hannaford supermarkets to limit donations to specific organizations is forcing it to close after more than 20 years of service.

Samuel Richards, pastor of East Winthrop Baptist Church, said Hannaford’s new policy to limit donations to food pantries that are affiliated with Good Shepherd Food Bank means the East Winthrop’s food ministry will lose its source of food and will have to close. The ministry’s only hope of continuing service, an application to become a Good Shepherd affiliated food pantry, was rejected this week.

“It’s a really sad day for the hungry,” Richards said. “We had bread, vegetables, fruit. They won’t get that anymore.”

Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom said the supermarket chain made the decision in an effort to reduce the amount of meat and produce going to waste at its stores. Difficulty in scheduling timely pickups with food pantries has led to food, particularly meat, remaining at stores past its expiration date, meaning it must be thrown out.

“We’re working with Good Shepherd and its extensive network to rescue that food,” Blom said. “They have a very robust network in central Maine and throughout Maine.”

Dean Finley, director of the East Winthrop Baptist Church Food Ministry, said he was notified of Hannaford’s decision to require the pantry to be affiliated with Good Shepherd in December.

On Tuesday, he announced to the roughly 50 people who gathered for food that the pantry is likely shutting down.

“I think the only thing that hurt me as bad is when I lost my sister to cancer,” Finley said. “It hurts me worse to tell you this.”

The news was greeted with sadness and spawned a sense of uncertainty among those who have come to depend on the ministry. Nacia Miller of Augusta says she visits a pantry in that city once a month, but there is still not enough food to feed her and her 6-year-old son.

“They’re very nice in Augusta, but it’s not enough to last the month,” she said. “I pick up food for people who can’t get here. They don’t care about that here.”

Nancy Michaud of Chelsea says she has a disability, but because she continues to work she does not qualify for subsidized housing or food assistance.

“This is it,” she said. “There are weeks I can’t get any food on my table and these guys help me. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

policy brings structure

Hannaford spokesman Blom said local stores will continue to give directly to nearby pantries that are affiliated with Good Shepherd. Those pantries will still be responsible for picking up the food at the store, but Blom said Good Shepherd ensures its partner pantries know how to handle the food properly and safely.

Good Shepherd, which distributes food to about 600 agencies across the state, is working with its partners in the area to redistribute the food that has been funneled to East Winthrop Baptist Church.

JoEllen Cottrell, executive director of the Winthrop Food Pantry on High Street, said it has made arrangements to pick up produce at the Winthrop Hannaford once a week. The pantry, which serves about 100 families in Winthrop and Wayne, has offered produce for years and began offering meat a few months ago, but getting the supplies has meant a trip to Good Shepherd’s food distribution center in Auburn.

Now, they should be able to pick it up closer to home.

“We’re hoping it will save us a trip,” Cottrell said.

Blom said the policy change has been some time in the making. Hannaford’s parent company, Delhaize America, has a contract with Feeding America. Good Shepherd is Feeding America’s partner in Maine.

Good Shepherd spokeswoman Clara Whitney said limiting donations to partner agencies will bring structure to the company’s donating process.

“By limiting donations to the Feeding America network they can get reports on how much they are donating and know it’s being handled safely,” Whitney said.

The policy change was to take effect March 1, but Finley said the deadline was extended at East Winthrop until connections could be made with other pantries. Finley said all of his pantry’s food has come from Hannaford in Winthrop and Augusta. Other stores, like Walmart and Shaw’s, already have established connections with other organizations.

“There’s really nowhere else to go,” Finley said. “We’ve been in partnership with them for 22 years.”

no questions asked

Whitney said 12 organizations have applied for a partnership as a result of the Hannaford policy switch. Two applications have been rejected, two others approved and two are in the process of being approved, Whitney said. The other six applications are under review and site visits are being scheduled. Whitney declined to detail the food bank’s reasons for rejecting East Winthrop’s application.

“Good Shepherd Food Bank is committed to ending hunger in Maine,” Whitney said. “In order to do that, we know we have to work with the most effective partner agencies. We have other partnerships in the area. We feel those are effective local partners.”

Finley said Thursday he was still awaiting a letter from Good Shepherd explaining the rejection, but based on phone conversations, Finley said it appears Good Shepherd believes East Winthrop distributes its food unfairly. Rather than allocating food based on family size, East Winthrop has historically encouraged those seeking help to take as much food as they need. Finley said Good Shepherd officials also said they were concerned about having a second food pantry in the community.

The East Winthrop church had never sought to partner with Good Shepherd until Hannaford announced its decision. The ministry preferred to remain on its own because it did not want limit how much food was given out and to whom it was given.

Whitney said Good Shepherd’s partners are independent, but the agencies do have a confidential intake process, that includes information on household size and need. The reports are for in-house purposes only, Whitney said. Some Good Shepherd pantries include proof of address and income verification as part of that process. Some limit households to one visit per month.

“It varies from pantry to pantry,” Whitney said.

Cottrell said the Winthrop Food Pantry is open every Thursday, but individual families can receive donations once every four weeks. Giving is based on need using federal poverty guidelines, Cottrell said.

East Winthrop’s less restrictive policies have proven effective, Richards said. The church seeks no personal information and allows all who come, regardless of where they live, to take as much food as they need. The church sets no limit on the number of monthly visits. People occasionally may take more than they need, Richards admits, but it’s a rare occurrence.

“We don’t care what your politics are, what we care about is you’re here and you’re hungry and we want to feed you,” Richards said. “We believe that Jesus would have us feed the hungry. We try to do what Jesus wants us to do.”

Bonds beyond food

Shelley Gearheart of Winthrop, who takes care of her grandmother, said she doesn’t qualify for government assistance. The East Winthrop pantry has allowed her to reallocate money to paying bills that now, she fears, will go unpaid. She worries she may lose the home handed down to her from her parents.

“We’ll have a lot less from month to month,” Gearheart said. “I’ll have to not pay a bill to make up for what I’m not getting here.”

Gearheart and others spoke of the bond they have made not only with the ministry volunteers, but with those who come for help. They shared stories of wood-splitting parties or rides to appointments.

“It provides more than food,” Gearheart said. “These people are family.”

Jen Currier of Winthrop said her family, which includes her husband and two children as well as an elderly relative, survives on one income. Currier said they have chosen a vegetarian diet for health reasons, but it will be much more difficult to maintain without the East Winthrop pantry.

“They’re the only ones who do fruit and produce to this extent,” she said. “This is the most basic health insurance you can have, eating well.”

Richards said he is thankful for the food Hannaford has donated over the years.

“These are good people at Hannaford and Good Shepherd. They are not the problem,” Richards said. “The problem is there has been a decision made that will have unintended consequences.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected] Twitter: @CraigCrosby4