Food Pantry Hopes to Continue Expansion

By Lura Jackson

It’s no secret that times are tough in Eastern Washington County. Like most rural places in America, the population is shrinking and aging while the tax burdens are rising. What distinguishes the St. Croix Valley and the towns around it is the community that has developed here over the centuries of shared hardship on the rugged coast of Maine. One of the most robust examples of that community spirit can be found at the Irene Chadbourne Ecumenical Food Pantry on Main Street in Calais. The number of meals served this year is up more than three hundred percent over last year, and the pantry hopes to expand its services even further for needy families.

The 584 families that are now part of the client list at the pantry aren’t all from Calais. Instead, they travel from far and wide for the opportunity to fill up on sacks of donated goods. The closure of the Topsfield Food Pantry (following two break-ins) a few months ago prompted the addition of 170 families to the list at the Calais pantry, including families from Vanceboro, Brookton, Princeton, Wesley, and Indian Township. Others make the trip from Alexander, Robbinston, Cherryfield, or Eastport, to name a few places, while still more clients are transient. 

Families that come to the Food Pantry in Calais are able to choose from a wide selection of produce. The Friends of Aroostook in Northern Maine donate large amounts of spaghetti, butternut and acorn squash in addition to potatoes and other winter vegetables. Hannaford and Wal-Mart donate produce and damaged items as well as baked goods and pastries. The Good Shepherd Food Bank contributes the largest donation each week, sending in shipments of apples, tomatoes, and potatoes as well as packaged and processed foods. The delivery this week will be 16,000 pounds, including 200 pounds each of carrots, beets, and turnips as well as fish fillets for each family. Sometimes local hunters donate part of their catch—the Hollaback Guide service is one example, donating bear meat at the close of the recent hunting season. “We’re blessed with donations from the people in this community,” President David Sivret said.

All the incoming donations require a significant amount of unloading and processing room, a feat made easier by the completion of a 48’ x 27’ loading bay. The new room enables trucks to be unloaded with an electric pallet jack while providing plenty of storage space for packaged goods. 

Each family can come once a month for nonperishables (such as canned and processed goods) and once a week for produce. Friday has also been added as a “free” day where families can come in specifically to pick up additional fresh produce. Even still, certain foods hold precedence. “They go right for the sweets,” Sivret said with a laugh when asked what most families opt for first. He clarified that older clients tend to prefer the fresh produce (having more experience cooking with it, he surmised) while the younger families go for the baked goods.

While the recent expansion has made it easier to handle the higher demand, Sivret is hopeful that the Food Pantry will be able to offer more to its clients. The pantry is in the process of raising funds to complete the installation of a sprinkler system in the building, which will enable the upstairs apartments to be used as a shelter for families routed by fire, victims of domestic violence, or transients. Of the approximately $20,000 cost for the project, a donation of $10,000 from the Episcopal Diocese of Maine has been received along with $1,000 from an Episcopal church in Texas. Sivret expects to have word back soon a grant that may provide the remaining difference.

With a steadily growing list of clients, Sivret remains optimistic about the future. “As long as we continue to get these donations, we’ll be fine.” A dedicated roster of seventy volunteers works with the pantry to assist clients and to organize its additional programs like Backpack for Kids, which provides weekend lunches for eighty-four needy children in the area. Every bag packed and every meal served is testament to the community’s enduring commitment to the goodwill of its friends and neighbors, a legacy that has shaped the St. Croix Valley as surely as the river itself.