Volunteers Allan Hitt, left, Ryley Lassor, Lloyd Kenfield and the Rev. Edward Spenser unload a trailer Wednesday at the North Monmouth Food Bank. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Central Maine food banks are keeping their hopes up for 2021 after the pandemic complicated early efforts to feed an increasing number of food-insecure people, and have encouraged more fortunate community members to donate their money and time.

Cases of COVID-19 continue to be reported at a breakneck pace compared to spring 2020, and many people are hoping for widespread vaccination and an overall deceleration of cases in 2021.

Back in May, some food banks in Central Maine were scrambling to get supplies for customers as need increased. That need plateaued as the pandemic continued, helped by some families receiving stimulus checks.

Ed Spencer, senior pastor of the North Monmouth Community Church and the coordinator of the North Monmouth Food Bank, confirmed that numbers of families in need increased in April and May, but then fell to about half after the stimulus checks arrived and more people became wary of becoming sick.

“We serve a lot of elderly (people); probably 70% of the families we serve are elderly,” Spencer said. “They were afraid to come out because they are the most vulnerable.”

Volunteer Lloyd Kenfield adds cans to the stack Wednesday while restocking supplies at the North Monmouth Food Bank. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Spencer said that the pandemic has brought out incredible generosity from donors. Large donations have come through the food pantry, including $500 from MaineGeneral employees and a woman who spent her entire $1,200 stimulus check to support the food pantry, he said. Monetary donations stretch further than food donations because pantries are able to stretch a donation about 10 times further purchasing through their partners.

“Every single penny someone gives us … goes to buy food,” Spencer said. “We really have been blessed through this.”

Along with financial donations, Spencer said that supermarket partners have been unloading hundreds of pounds of bakery items at no cost to the pantry. With all of the generosity, the North Monmouth Food Bank has been able to partner with local food banks and other organizations to share its surplus food.

Bob Moore, executive director of the Augusta Food Bank, said supply issues have all but vanished. Moore said that retail operations have amped up their donations to the food bank, pushing total donations to more than 750,000 pounds of food in 2020, a record.

Despite record numbers, however, Moore reported seeing “more desperation” in the last couple of months. He cited two food giveaways at the Augusta Civic Center, one in August, where 1,200 boxes of food were given away, and one in October, where more than 2,000 boxes were handed out.

“The last one, we gave away 2,300 (boxes), and if I had to categorize it, it was more of a desperate need in people than the first time,” he said.

Volunteer Ryley Lassor adds another box to the stack Wednesday as at the North Monmouth Food Bank resupplies its stock. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Moore said he doesn’t see the number of families that use the food bank changing, and hoped for generosity to continue into the new year. Moore said that recovery from the pandemic will not likely be complete in one year, and changes in need at the food bank will correlate to how fast the economy rebounds.

“Obviously, you never take anything for granted,” he said. “Things change and you have to continue to engage and educate people as to what the need is.”

After reporting difficulties in finding some items in the early months of the pandemic, such as meat and personal hygiene items, Jeanne Langsdorf, the director of the Hallowell Food Bank, said the pantry is well stocked. From conversations with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Langsdorf said that the supply chain is seemingly healthy heading into the new year.

Langsdorf said a worry for 2021 is a drop off in the initial increase in volunteers. She said that some volunteers are stepping down because they are nervous about becoming sick.

“A lot of us are either old or retired,” she said of the organization’s volunteers. “They have to be safe and take care of themselves first.”

Donors have also been generous with money in Hallowell, where the food bank got its largest ever donation in November, $5,000 from Central Maine Power.

Spencer said that he hopes the generosity in the community continues through to what he hopes will be the end of the pandemic. Further, he hopes people keep up their support of local businesses.

“Local businesses really were blessed with people focusing more local if they could,” Spencer said. “Those small hometown businesses, I think, … are going to see a lot of good come out of this.”

Keith Hilton, pastor at South Gardiner Baptist Church, said an uptick in usage at the church’s food pantry was reduced to “almost nothing” after stimulus checks came out.

“I expected it, coming into November and December, to pick up again, but it didn’t,” he said. “We haven’t seen what we kind of thought would be a need for it.”

Hilton said his pantry is better stocked than it was before, and he doesn’t expect much of a change in 2021. He said the pantry will be ready to service its usual customers and any new ones in the Gardiner area.

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