Dorothy Santos, a volunteer at the Winslow Community Cupboard, carries a box of food to her car Tuesday at the cupboard in Winslow. Santos said she was delivering food to her neighbor. Food distribution days at the Winslow Community Cupboard are scheduled for the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. The next distributions days are Jan. 14 and Jan. 28 at the cupboard in Winslow. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The phone line to the Winslow Community Cupboard constantly rings. Volunteers often rush out emergency food deliveries at a moment’s notice.

Pauline Magaw, a 58-year-old Winslow resident, is still working part-time but is on disability due to a stroke and quadruple bypass. Her husband lost work due to an injury.

Magaw said she felt bad taking the boxes, but knew she needed the food.

“We had nothing in the house, nothing,” Magaw said. “I just took advantage of it. I had to. Every penny I made went to bills.”

Local food insecurity is rampant, but a recent major source of supply came to a halting thud at year’s end. Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday a new phase of its Farmers to Families Food Box Program, local food pantries are scrambling.

“What we’re doing now is just trying to scrape together what we can come up with and what we can put out,” said Bruce Bottiglierie, operations manager of the Winslow Community Cupboard.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the USDA will purchase $1.5 billion more in food nationwide for its Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Contracts will be awarded Jan. 19, and deliveries will begin shorty after.

Initially, the program ended at the conclusion of 2020 with no signs of a new phase. The national program, which occurred in four phases and was paid for through the Families First Coronavirus Act, ended with no signs of life for it to restart any time soon. Monday’s announcement brings welcome relief to food pantries across America.

Food distribution days at the Winslow Community Cupboard are scheduled for second and fourth Thursdays of the month. The next distribution days are Jan. 14 and Jan. 28 at the cupboard in Winslow. The cupboard is at the right on Tuesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“This new round of Farmers to Families Food Boxes will go a long way in helping American families access nutritious and healthy meals as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Perdue said in a news release.

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

A handful of local food pantries and organizations took part in the Farmers to Families program, including a team effort between Kennebec Valley Community College and the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program.

Launched in May, Farmers to Families was designed to buy food from struggling farmers and send it to families in need via nonprofits. According to the Good Shepherd Food Bank and USDA, 13.6% of Maine’s households are food insecure which is nearly 2% above the national average.

The food from each phase came from different farms. The first phase supplied Maine with food from Maine Farmers Exchange. Maine received food from other states during subsequent phases.

The average box included 25-30 pounds of produce, meat, milk and cheese to feed a family of four for a couple of days.

Erin Callaway, executive director of the Piscataquis Regional Food Center in Dover-Foxcroft, said her program took part in four distributions. PRFC is not a food pantry by definition, but still took part in the program.

“I think they’re incredibly important because the need for food assistance is increasing because of COVID-19,” Callaway said. “I’m really glad to hear that there’s going to be another round.”

The Skowhegan Federated Church took part in five distributions of 1,150 boxes.

“I get calls every week from different organizations and people from around the area asking if we’re going to be doing distributions again,” said the Rev. Mark Tanner of the Federated Church. “There’s a huge need in the area, but it’s amazing to me to see the generosity of people here in the area.”

Bottiglierie and Assistant Operations Manager Anna Quattrucci opened the Winslow Community Cupboard in late March at the pandemic’s outset. Housed at the Winslow Congregational Church, the cupboard is open on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month from 3-5 p.m. and 5-7 p.m.

During the third phase of the program, which was from the middle of September through October, the Winslow Community Cupboard distributed an average of 3,500 boxes each Saturday. In the most recent phase, the government cut Maine’s distribution count.

“I wanted two trucks a week, and at first they said OK, but then they turned around and only gave me five trucks for the whole two months. And it was only 1,200 boxes per truck,” Bottiglierie said. “It was a major hit to this area.”

From left, Grace Stocco, 15, her sister Annie, 13, and Megan Morrison, 13, move containers of newly received peanut butter Monday before stocking the shelves with a shipment of new food items at the Winslow Community Cupboard, 12 Lithgow St. in Winslow. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

In total, the Winslow Community Cupboard gave out more than 22,000 Farm-to-Families boxes. Demand was so high that the Winslow Police Department had to direct traffic. Cars would begin lining up at 6 a.m. for the 8 a.m. distributions and 1,200 boxes would be gone in 90 minutes between pickups and deliveries.

“People are still clamoring for food boxes, but they don’t know when they’re coming,” Quatrucci said. “It’s not like we’re saying no. It’s just not being offered, and we have no idea if it’s intended on being offered again.”

Because the fifth phase is a longer time frame than the others, running through April, Bottiglierie is unsure of the volume of boxes that will be distributed. That uncertainty concerns officials from food pantries across the region.

“It’s going to be a longer period of time, so they may stretch out the amount of boxes you can get,” Bottiglierie said. “Until I get more answers about what quantities, I do not know at this time.”

The Winslow Community Cupboard, which serves approximately 120 families weekly, partners with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Good Shepherd Food Bank. They also receive regular food donations from the Elm Plaza Hannaford in Waterville. Other individuals and businesses donate food, money and supplies. Four times a week, they put out leftover food from the grocery store donors that would spoil by the next distribution.

The cupboard is still getting supplies from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, USDA and Hannaford. They are also getting food from Sam’s Club the first and third Fridays of the month.

Cherie Merrill, executive director of the Belfast Soup Kitchen, said they’ve participated in all available rounds of the Farmers to Families program, distributing 10,424 boxes. The soup kitchen is open Monday through Friday, serving an average of 300 meals per day, which is up from an average of 95 last January.

Another phase is good news, no doubt, Merrill said. However, she is concerned that the quantity still won’t meet local need.

“It depends on who gets the bid, so it’s hard to tell,” Merrill said. “We’ll have to see what the allotment is.”

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