Dilu Nlando counts boxes while people load them with food at the Root Cellar food pantry in Portland. The Root Cellar is operating under a new model where the people receiving food at the pantry do the work of unloading, sorting and packing it into boxes. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Florence Pooler, known as Flo, is a small woman but a large presence at the Friday morning meeting of the Friends & Neighbors Network at the Root Cellar on Washington Avenue in Portland.

Wearing sneakers, a white shirt and a red ball cap, along with her name badge, she walks around the cavernous downstairs room with a slight limp – the 82-year-old has a bandage around her right knee – calling out greetings to other Portland residents who have come together to take part in this unique style of food pantry, one where everyone is required to contribute money, time and muscle in exchange for the boxes of groceries that their families need.

“You have a super day now,” Pooler says to one woman. “Hello darlin’, how are you?” she calls out to another.

At this meeting of FANN, the hierarchical lines are so blurred, it’s hard to discern who is on staff and who is a client. Pooler is both – a manager who receives a stipend for the work she does with the group and the recipient of groceries that help her get by.

FANN is a concept that originated several years ago at Food Security for America in Atlanta. The Root Cellar’s traditional food pantries in Portland and Lewiston were some of the first in the country to sign up to try the new model. The Root Cellar is still among just 44 organizations nationwide, and the only one in Maine, putting it to use. The idea behind the food co-ops is that feeding the hungry needs to be about more than just providing resources, such as food and rental assistance, in transactions where people stand in line for handouts with a clear giver and receiver.

Kattie Hartwell, adult programs assistant coordinator at the Root Cellar, listens as Mary Bol talks to her. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Charity is good up to a point,” said Kattie (pronounced Katie) Hartwell, adult programs assistant coordinator at the Root Cellar, “but then it can be harmful because you’re creating a dependence rather than empowering somebody to take care of themselves and then move on when they’re ready.”

Research has shown that removing psychological barriers that marginalize the hungry and keep them trapped in a cycle of poverty is as important as providing them with food, said Kristen Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank. People who visit food pantries need an experience that centers around them and builds them up, putting some of the power back in their hands, she said.

“The traditional way of food distribution needs to change,” Miale said. “We’ve been doing this for almost 40 years and the problem of hunger is the worst it’s ever been, so clearly we need to do something different.”

Food Security for America is working with a couple universities on a study that will measure just how well the FANN groups work. They study will begin in Georgia early next year, with results expected next summer, but its success at the Root Cellar is evident.

There are two FANN groups that meet in Portland, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on alternating Fridays. The 11 a.m. group that met on Nov. 1 included people who were born and raised in Maine working alongside new Mainers from places like Somalia, Congo and Vietnam. About 35 families are members of the group, which translates into feeding about 130 people, Hartwell said. On any given week, 20 to 28 families show up. The 1 p.m. group, which meets on alternate Fridays, has 30 families representing 125 people. The number of people seeking help has been steadily increasing over the past few years, she said.

Before the bulk of the food arrives, people pay a $3 fee to Velma Nguyen, who handles the paperwork, and she hands them a ticket with a number on it. Nguyen is on the leadership team, a group of participants who, among other things, decide how to handle issues such as discovering that someone is taking extra food while no one is looking. Nguyen comes to these meetings because she is on disability and can’t get food stamps. She has four adult children; one daughter lives with her and works seven days a week. Nguyen shares the food she gets at the Root Cellar with her daughter and her brother, who has cancer. “My grandkids, I take milk to them,” she said. “They love milk.”

The $3 payment is a requirement, but it’s not about the food. The money is used to help pay for things like light and heat, but is also important for another reason. “Even if it’s a small amount, (researchers have) found that if someone can pay for something, it preserves their dignity, instead of coming in and having somebody else hand you a box of food that they’ve prepared for you,” Hartwell said.

Simply showing up is also a requirement. Once in a while, everyone has a conflict they can’t avoid, and in those cases, they are allowed to send a friend or family member in their place, Hartwell says. But for the most part, they are expected to schedule other appointments around the Friday group meetings.

“If one person isn’t here, everybody else is here doing the work necessary for them to have a box, and they aren’t participating,” she said. “It’s fine if it happens once in a while, but if that’s happening all the time … that gets tricky sometimes for people. Sometimes they struggle.”

Dilu Nlando carries a box of frozen onions to a cart at the Root Cellar food pantry in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Participants are also expected to do their share of the work unloading food and packing it into boxes for distribution, and setting up and tearing down tables, whatever their physical ability. If someone is in a wheelchair, or unable to move around well or lift heavy boxes, for example, they might sit and open bags of produce for the people who are packing the boxes.

“It’s not something somebody is doing for them,” Hartwell said. “It’s something they do for themselves.”

The Rev. Nancy Yarnell, president and chief executive officer of Food Security for America, who calls the Root Cellar “one of our top affiliates around the country,” said that if people don’t really need the food, “they are not going to come regularly and punctually every two weeks, pay a token amount, and work for about two hours distributing food,” she said. “We continually see (in Atlanta) that, once people get a job or a better job, or graduate from school, or heal from an illness, or save up enough money to get safer living arrangements, or the kids grow up and leave, that they move on and (as they say) ‘give up their place to someone who needs it more.'”

Masuma Sayed of Portland says she likes the attendance requirement and the socialization it allows. She has been to food pantries in the past where everyone held hands and prayed at the start, she said, but when it came time for food to be distributed, there was “pushing and shoving.” Here, she said, “everybody gets what they want, and everybody is happy when they leave. It’s well organized.”

“You get to know about other peoples’ cultures,” she added. “You talk about things. You get to meet people you become friends with. You get connected by heart.” Sayed, 40, becomes emotional talking about her experience making friends at the Root Cellar. Born in Afghanistan, she was just 7 years old when she saw her mother die in a bombing . She also lost a sister and brother; the deaths broke her father’s heart and then he died, too. Another brother is living in Germany now, but Sayed hasn’t seen him in 27 years. She lives with an adult son who has medical issues and a 10-year-old son who is autistic.

“I say God must love me the most, so he gave me a tough job,” Sayed said.

At this meeting, there are 32 boxes that need to be filled with groceries. Families of one to three get a single box, four to seven people get two boxes, and eight or more get three boxes.

At about 11:15 a.m., the fruits and vegetables roll in, and everyone puts on gloves to unload it onto tables.

“Today they have garlic, and I use a lot of garlic,” Sayed said as she bagged potatoes into individual portions. She’ll share her apples with a friend who likes them and is also struggling.

Across the room, boxes are lined up like soldiers on another set of tables, and the unloaded food is divided among them. “We don’t even speak the same language,” one woman says, “but everybody knows their job.”

Inside one box: Frosted Mini Wheats, a bag of McIntosh apples, cauliflower, limes, carrots, zucchini noodles, a package of almost-too-old diced onions, baby arugula, butternut squash, a head of garlic, a package of snap peas, and a can of chicken pasta soup.

Next, out comes a cart filled with perishable dairy products – milk, eggs, cheese – and frozen grape juice that will be added to the boxes. And finally, the frozen meat.

Around the room there are several other tables: A bread table is piled high with flatbread, brioche, hamburger buns, naan, rolls, white bread and challah. The sweets table is covered in eclairs, muffins, apple strudel, eight large cakes, cookies, pies and chocolate croissants. The paper goods table has paper towels, paper plates and napkins. People can pick what they like from each of these tables, but they are limited to two breads per box, one sweet per box, and so on.

A generic “extras” table holds the leftovers that remain after most of the food has been distributed evenly among the boxes. After they’ve received their groceries, people can take anything they want from this table.

About 40 percent of the food comes from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, according to Hartwell. Another 50 percent is donated by Hannaford and Whole Foods. The other 10 percent comes from a few other places, including the Mainers Feeding Mainers program, a partnership between local farms and food banks. The Root Cellar’s farm partner is Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

Flo Pooler calls out a number for a box of food to be picked up at the Root Cellar food pantry in Portland. After the boxes are packed, Pooler randomly picks out numbers that correspond with a recipient. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Flo Pooler calls for quiet. It’s time to randomly match people to a box, which is done by drawing numbers. Everything about this process is extraordinarily fair, but being the first one called to get a box is one area where there’s an advantage. The first numbers get first choice of the food still on the tables. On this day, Pooler calls out ticket No. 24, and it turns out that’s Velma Nguyen. Everyone claps for her.

“Are you serious?” she says, not believing her luck. (“I’m usually last,” she explained later.)

After picking up her box, Nguyen chooses a package of sirloin tips that had been marked down $5 at the store. She grabs two loaves of wheat bread, a roll of paper towels, another half-gallon of milk, some grape juice and a tuna sandwich. “Too much,” she says. “But I share it.”

In the end, all that’s left on the extras table is eight boxes of cereal and eight bottles of black garlic mayo from Whole Foods that Hartwell is pushing hard. “It’s probably yummy,” she says. But they open a bottle, and every person who smells it makes a face.

Everyone loads up whatever form of vehicle for the food they brought with them. Those who can’t drive have shopping carts, reusable bags and even strollers that they fill with groceries. As soon as tables are empty, they are quickly wiped down, folded up and put away until next week’s meeting. It’s remarkable how quickly it all ends.

Even Pooler is still impressed. Wiping down the extras table, she says, “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

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