Gardiner Police Department employees stand with Gardiner Area High School gifted and talented coordinator RayeAnne DeSoto, second from left, and freshman Lizzie Kropp, second from right, Thursday at the school’s food bank. Police officers and department employees donated gift certificates they received for working as essential employees to the Tiger Food Bank. The $1,200 in discounts will help local families currently in need, DeSoto said. The Gardiner Police Department employees are, from left, Tara Miley, Officer Kaleb Marston, Sgt. Norm Gove, Sgt. Todd Pilsbury and Officer Carolynn Taylor, far right. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — For nearly three years, a food bank at the Gardiner Area High School has been helping meet the needs of some area residents.

With a donation last week from the Gardiner Police Department, the food bank will be able to extend a little more help this year.

Department employees donated $1,200 worth of gift checks for Gardiner businesses they had received in appreciation for their work as essential employees during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We worked during that time and got a full paycheck,” Det. Sgt. Todd Pilsbury said. “A lot of people didn’t.”

They wanted the checks to go to the Tiger Food Pantry, which serves students in the Gardiner-area school district and their families, Pilsbury said, to be used for whatever was needed.

For about two and a half years, RayeAnne DeSoto has been overseeing the The Tiger Food Pantry. The pantry runs out of a storage space that adjoins DeSoto’s classroom and the Interact Club, a student club of Rotary International. The idea for the food pantry came at the same time the Interact Club was forming, and the club took on the food pantry as its local project.

While it hasn’t been decided yet, the checks are likely to be used in two ways, DeSoto said. “They’re going to vote on it this week,” she said.

The recommendation is to use half the amount for items needed for the food pantry, like buying meat from Emery’s Meat and Produce. The other half would be set aside for families to shop for Christmas gifts for their children.

Kassidy Collins, a senior at Gardiner Area High School and president of the Interact Club, said she and her classmates saw food insecurity in the school community and that members of their community were not getting what they needed.

In starting up the food bank, they were able to use a storage space adjacent to DeSoto’s classroom, and now they spend their time sanitizing donations that come in, organizing the space and packing the boxes that are distributed every Monday afternoon.

The boxes can include staple items for breakfast and lunch, as well as fresh fruit and meat. Personal care items are also available.

Earlier this year, when in-person instruction was canceled, DeSoto said other teachers and educational technicians volunteered their time to help process donations and put together food boxes for distribution.

Because of confidentiality requirements, the students don’t know who receives the boxes. The requests come to DeSoto through her number at the school, 207-582-3150 ext. 3313, or via the food bank’s Facebook page.

“We all knew we were working toward something bigger than ourselves,” Collins said. “The work was worth it, for sure.”

DeSoto said at the peak of the pandemic earlier this year, the food pantry served 65 families. And now, going into the fall, she’s seeing the demand start to rise again.

While she doesn’t have any data to rely on yet, DeSoto said she’s wondering whether the people the food bank helps will struggle to pay heating bills or medical bills with the onset of cold and flu season. And while the school district will continue to provide meals for students, some families have younger children who are not yet enrolled in school, she said.

Those factors, as well as emergencies like job losses, continue to show the need for the food bank.

DeSoto said despite the months-long uncertainty about the pandemic, the students in Interact have remained focused on how to improve the food bank, help families and find funding.

“Our community has been extremely generous, it’s been amazing,” she said, citing donations and support the Gardiner Police Department, area businesses and residents, the Augusta Food Bank and the Hannaford grocery warehouse in Winthrop, whose donation got the food bank started in 2017.

“I wish there wasn’t a need for us to do this, and I wish the families were all set,” DeSoto said. “But we will be here as long as families need us to help take care of them.”

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