Augusta Food Bank Director Bob Moore, center, speaks Monday with volunteers. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The coronavirus pandemic may be subsiding, but hunger and the need for food are not.

That was the message from Augusta Food Bank Director Bob Moore in advance of the agency’s return to being fully open Monday.

Augusta and Manchester residents are now able to select their food — including meat, dairy, produce and other staples — using supermarket-style service.

A limited version of the experience, with a smaller menu of available items, had been in place since June 1.

Moore said the full opening of AFB Marketplace is “perfect timing,” given the food bank’s distribution is up 20% from last year and he expects that to continue increasing.

“In two weeks (since the start of the limited self-selection), numbers are skyrocketing again,” he said. “As the unemployment piece goes and the stimulus runs out, I think we are going to see a lot of people in need for services.

“Even if coming is temporary, like you are choosing between a bill or food, the food bank is here. Don’t let food insecurity be a worry if you have other worries in life.”

Visitors can grab whatever they need, including fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and pantry items, but at the end, there is no checkout or money exchanged. There are no set rules for what can be brought home, but the food bank asks patrons to be respectful of items in limited supply. Visitors are also asked to supply their own bags.

To participate, residents must schedule an appointment Monday through Wednesday, and bring proof of residency, which can be a piece of mail, such as a bill. They must sign a form from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, too.

Good Shepherd Food Bank officials predict food insecurity in Kennebec County will increase to 17,030 residents — 14% of the county’s population — because of the coronavirus pandemic. The same survey said 20.6% of children in the state are projected to be food insecure, a 9% increase from 2019.

Maine is one of the states leading the way in offering free meals to students, after it was announced the state would continue providing free meals in 2022 through 2023 and beyond, and many central Maine organizations and schools are offering free meals this summer to anyone younger than 18 who needs food.

The food bank never stopped during the pandemic, but instead would package meals to give out in the parking lot. Moore said he hoped the supermarket-style pantry will help remove the sigma of getting necessities from a food bank, with the goal of having the grocery store experience.

“There were people that came during the pandemic who never envisioned using a food bank,” he said. “I think we will see more of that.”

Susannah Boyd collects strawberries that were put along the road Monday at the Augusta Food Bank. “I don’t know what we would have done during the COVID without this place,” she says. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Susannah Boyd stopped at the food bank Monday, receiving strawberries put along the road by the facility.

“I don’t know what we would have done during the COVID without this place,” she said.

The Augusta Food Bank, in addition to AFB Marketplace, gives out Kid’s Packs to those younger than 18, and has Free Food Thursdays, which are open to everyone, not just Manchester or Augusta residents.

For Free Food Thursday, no appointment is needed. Kid’s Packs are given out during that time, too, and on Monday through Wednesday, starting this week. Kid’s Packs contain six meals, and Moore said at least 125 are given out every week. He said he expected the number to increase now that school is out.

Thursdays have become one of the more popular days at the food bank, which has, on average, 55 families showing up on a regular basis. Earlier in the week, for the resident self-selection days, food bank officials expected to see at least 20 people per day.

People on the food bank’s Facebook page expressed their gratitude for the service, with many thanking the organization for its help.

“There has been a real uptick in the amount of people coming through the doors, especially now since school is out,” Moore said. “(On Thursdays) It’s not just breads and desserts, like we first started doing, it’s meat, dairy and produce. We say we open the parking lot at 8 a.m., already at 6:30 a.m., there are cars lined down Mt. Vernon Avenue.”

Augusta Food Bank volunteer Al Cloutier sorts donations Monday. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The AFB is run on donations and fundraising, according to Moore.

In a typical month, he said, the food bank receives food valued at about $100,000. Moore said fundraising has been difficult with COVID-19, but the food bank still receives donation steadily. In an average year, it receives donations worth about $1.4 million, including food and money. The food bank will help its partners with surplus food, too, so more people can be reached.

Moore said people often ask him what they can donate. He said it is personal preference, noting “cash is king” because the food bank can “leverage the dollar further.” But all donations are needed and appreciated.

Cony Middle and High School has collected 1,333 boxes of cereal for the food bank. Moore joked the AFB is “set on cereal for now.”

The food bank has about 75 volunteers, including high school students, senior citizens and people with special needs. Moore began working at the food bank in January 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I love all my jobs, but this one is special,” he said. “I love coming to work. The volunteers are great. So are the people we serve. It’s very rewarding.”

Those interested in utilizing the food bank’s services should call 207-622-5224 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Located at 161 Mount Vernon Ave. in Augusta, the food bank is open to Augusta and Manchester residents Monday through Wednesday, by appointment. From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursday, all area residents are welcome to attend Free Food Thursday, with no appointments needed.

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