SKOWHEGAN — When the Skowhegan Community Food Cupboard opened in a church basement more than two decades ago, it was not uncommon to see four or five people to trickle in each month to grab a box of food to meet family needs.
These days, an estimated 400 families — each with one, two or three members — visit the cupboard each month, getting fresh fruit and vegetables, boxed rice, cereal, bread, rolls, juice and eggs, volunteers say.
On a recent Wednesday, more than two dozen people showed up, and five of them were first-time visitors, said volunteer Jo Nickerson, a member of the food cupboard’s board of directors.
“We’re serving a lot more people. That’s obvious. Just look out here this morning,” Nickerson said on a busy Wednesday at the food cupboard. “I can recall working here 15 or 20 years ago and having three of four, maybe seven people coming in, but now it’s rare to have a day when we don’t have 20-something. It’s sad. These are people that need help. They just don’t have income any more.”
Nickerson said most visitors to the food cupboard already are on Maine’s Food Supplement Program, or food stamps, and come to the pantry once a month to add to what they are allowed under the state program.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Somerset County ranks third in Maine, with a poverty rate of 17.8 percent. Only Washington County, with a rate of 19.5 percent, and Piscataquis County, with a poverty rate of 18.5 percent, are poorer.
For Andrea Rowe, 21, and Brittany Ward, 19, those statistics are all too real and sobering.
“The service they provide here is wonderful. Every time I come here, they’re never out of food,” Rowe said. “They always help people. No matter what, they always help people.”
Rowe and Ward said they were waiting Wednesday morning to pick up canned goods, pasta, cereal, eggs, meat, bread, and fruit and vegetables. They have been coming to the pantry for about a year, with Rowe disabled and Ward currently out of work, having quit her job at the Gardiner Hannaford supermarket to move to Skowhegan. They come once a month, which is the rule of the food cupboard, open from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Proof of Skowhegan residency is required.
The food cupboard is in a building the organization owns on Cariani Street behind the Mr. Bubbles coin laundry on Waterville Road.
“This place is important. There’s a lot of homeless in Skowhegan that need the food,” Rowe said. “So when they do show up, it’s great. They welcome them with open arms. They always help out.”
The following day, on Thursday, the local Rotary Club presented the pantry with a check for $2,000 toward the purchase and upgrade of the cupboard’s refrigerator and freezers.
With more fresh produce and more healthful food offerings at the cupboard, the need was there, Skowhegan Rotary Club President Kurt Maynard said. He said a club fundraiser in February, called Dessert and Movie Night and held at the Strand Theater in downtown Skowhegan, raised about $1,400 for the food cupboard. Another $600 was donated by the Rotary District, which serves the central and western third of Maine and most of Quebec province in Canada.
“That money was earmarked for upgrading their refrigeration and their freezing equipment,” Maynard said. “We also support them annually with a $1,500 grant each year. We knew they were getting a lot of fresh produce donated and didn’t really have refrigeration to handle it.”
Food and produce donations have been coming from Wal-Mart, Hannaford and private donations, he said.
“If you look at the demographics of Maine counties, Somerset County, along with Washington and Aroostook, probably are the most depressed economically in the state,” he said.
Maynard added that many older people are supplementing their Social Security benefits with food offerings from the cupboard.
Jennifer Grenier, president of the food cupboard’s board of directors, who like Maynard works at Skowhegan Savings Bank, said $38,000 to $40,000 of the organization’s annual budget of about $45,000 is used to buy food. The rest pays for insurance and keeping their building heated and lit.
The town of Skowhegan, at Town Meeting in June, usually donates $10,000 from its annual budget for the food cupboard. New Balance Athletic Shoe Co. also donates money for the food pantry. Much of the purchased food comes from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.
“It’s all volunteers,” Grenier said.
Richard Boone, who has been with the organization for 25 years, was loading boxes, checking names and bracing for more visitors Wednesday. The pantry is set up for peak efficiency, with a long counter to slide donation boxes that are filled with just about whatever recipients want.
Boone, 85, said a lot has changed in the past 25 years.
“More people sign up every day,” he said. “It’s on account of the economy. There’s no comparison to years ago. We’d be lucky if we got 20 people them years. Now we got 500 a month. We’ve got a lot of people. We sign someone new up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”
Another volunteer, Ty Parsons, 48, of Cornville, a disabled Army veteran, works the sliding counter line, filling boxes with fresh, mostly wholesome food.
“They can take as much as they want,” Parsons said. “But only on certain items, and that’s subject to what we have right now; but people do it within reason.”
In great supply Wednesday were Barowsky’s rolls and bread, sealed packages of fresh okra and a big box of avocados.
Cindy Chestnet, who sits at the main desk checking in visitors and checking their eligibility, said families are allowed different amounts of food based on the number of people in the family.
Chane Owen, 31, and his fiancee, Natasha Vicaire, 27, were busy loading up their car Wednesday morning to head home just before the pantry was about to close for the day.
“We got cereal, eggs, bread, juice. They do a really good job here. They help out a lot families for people that need the food,” Owen said. “They do really good for people that, when they get their food stamps, they don’t last until their next food stamps, so it helps out people quite a bit.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367