CHINA — Husband and wife duo Lee and Ann Austin have been running the China Community Food Pantry from the top floor of their home for 23 years. And after watching those in need come in and out of their doors two days a week for nearly a quarter-century, Ann says that the need for food doesn’t pay attention to the calender.

“Need doesn’t just come at the holidays,” Ann said.

The food pantry, open Friday and Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m., serves residents of China first and then allows residents of other central Maine towns access to whatever the pantry has left for fresh produce and bread.

Most of what the food pantry offers comes from surplus donated by the local Hannaford supermarket, but the pantry also receives individual donations and food items provided by federal programs.

The Saturday after Christmas was slow, according to Ann, but one wouldn’t be able to tell, given the steady stream of people filling plastic and reusable shopping bags with food they need for the week.

“Today has been a little quieter because of the holiday food gifting by local churches,” Ann said. “It’s usually busier than this (other weeks). It tends to be slow just after the holidays.”

Ann said the donation of food leading up to the holidays is higher than it is at other times of year. However, while many people in need of food for the holidays do come in and take what they need, it’s often later in the winter that the need for food is highest. January and February are the months when the need of pantry users is the highest, Ann said. With fuel costs taking up more of people’s monthly budgets as the temperatures drop, they have less to spend on food.

“There is a big push for the holidays, but there is need at other times of the year, too. It’s the dead of winter that are the hardest months (for those in need),” Ann said.

The nonperishable donations the pantry receives around the holidays will provide the pantry with food to give out through the winter, Ann said. Those donations include hundreds of gift boxes donated by Hannaford. On Saturday alone, the pantry received 57 Hannaford Helps Fight Hunger boxes that were put together using donations from Hannaford customers throughout December. The boxes include tomato sauce, regular instant oatmeal, Tasteeos cereal, white rice, chicken noodle soup, cut green beans, elbow macaroni, creamy peanut butter, and garlic and onion pasta sauce.

Ann and Lee started the pantry 23 years ago when they decided to sell the Willow Beach Resort they had been operating on Lakeview Drive in China. After they sold the cabins, they turned the central office of the resort into the China Community Food Pantry. The Austins also live on the first floor of the building.

To increase the amount of food the pantry was able to offer, Lee networked with area Hannaford supermarkets, which resulted in the food pantry receiving any surplus food Hannaford removes from its shelves on Friday and Saturday mornings. On those mornings, food pantry volunteers pick up an array of fruit, vegetables, meat, and bread from the China Hannaford, and sometimes at Hannaford’s Waterville locations as well. Once the food is picked up and brought back to the pantry, volunteers sort through the items and arrange them by type for pantry users to choose from.

China residents have complete access to all of the food the pantry offers, including the Hannaford and individual donations as well as the federally provided food items. Residents from other towns cannot take food provided by individual donations or federal programs, and they may not take meat. However, they have access to the front room of the pantry, which features an array of fruit and vegetables as well as bread and pastry.

“Produce is one of the things people don’t eat when they’re poor,” Ann said. “They’re going to have a much better diet when they can access a variety of fresh produce.”

The Austins’ kindness and generosity is not taken for granted by those who use the pantry. A Belgrade woman named Chris, who wished to keep her last name private, said Ann Austin not only has provided her with food weekly, but also has taught her how to make what she can get last longer.

“She gave me a cookbook about how to can things so I can make my food resources last longer,” Chris said. “She’s very waste not, want not, and now I’m trying to be that way.”

One pantrygoer on Saturday, who wished to remain anonymous, said he goes to the pantry only when he really needs it, adding that his trip the day after Christmas was his first in a month.

“Our joy is just watching people learn to use what they have access to, and making it work,” Ann said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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