ELLSWORTH — The Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, tucked back from 119 Bucksport Road, is operating under new hours and a new manager. What remains the same is the organization’s goal of providing food and goods to individuals and families in a judgment-free space.
“We try to put back a little dignity into shopping,” says Ann Flynn, the pantry’s manager since September 2019.
After listening to client feedback, pantry officials made the decision to adjust the hours in order to serve more people. Most scheduling conflicts for clients revolve around when they will have transportation to get to the pantry.
The pantry’s new hours are Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 4 to 6:30 p.m. as well as Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to noon. The pantry is closed if Ellsworth School Department schools are closed or delayed.
Shelves are stocked with canned goods, pastas, cereals and bread. Fresh produce, eggs and cheeses are available, and several freezers are stocked with meat. While Flynn stresses that the pantry aims to provide healthy options, desserts are handy as well. Weekly food donations include pickups from Hannaford on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, along with stops at Walmart on Wednesdays and Fridays. Good Shepherd Food Bank provides food twice a month at a discounted cost.
Clients are asked to call ahead to set up an appointment, although walk-in clients are welcome. When clients arrive for the first time, they are asked to fill out forms with basic information. They do not need to provide income documentation.
Prior to changing the hours, “We would average probably 18 families a day,” estimates Andy Matthews, the pantry’s president for the past year. Matthews has been associated with the pantry for the last seven years, first as a volunteer, then as a board member.
“Now we are averaging 28…obviously the need is there. We had 38 this morning.”
In January, the pantry served 318 families, made up of 799 individuals. Another 28 families were on the schedule for last Wednesday night, not including potential walk-in clients.
According to the Maine Department of Labor, the state’s unemployment rate (not seasonally adjusted) was 2.8 percent in December 2019, down from 3.4 percent the year before. Hancock County’s rate was 3.9 percent in December 2019, down from 4.6 in 2018. However, the dropping unemployment rates have not appeared to ease the need for pantry services. Matthews explains that low wages are a large source of strain on their clients.
“Minimum wage is not a living wage. We have the working poor that have to come here, especially in the winter,” Matthews says, adding that many families are faced with difficult decisions, including whether to pay for heat or food.
“We say, ‘OK, pay for your heat and then come here.’”
Matthews and Flynn also point to unexpected life events, the diagnoses of chronic diseases that require expensive treatments and vulnerabilities with certain industries, such as fishing and logging, as factors that contribute to the increased need.
“Circumstances change,” says Flynn, “and we want to be that safety net.”
The pantry’s budget for this fiscal year is $99,679, which largely goes to cover food costs. Approximately $13,500 of the budget comes from nine Hancock County towns. Besides that, “the majority of our funding comes from private donations,” Matthews reports.
“We are always looking for volunteers, yet we are also very blessed to have so many volunteers,” says Matthews. All staff members are volunteers, except Flynn.
For those interested in donating items to Loaves and Fishes, the pantry struggles to stock baby items, pastas, low sugar cereals, personal hygiene products and pet foods. Another way to support the panty is by attending the second annual “Spring Fling to Fight Hunger” on March 7 from 6-10 p.m. at the Farmhouse Inn in Blue Hill.
All proceeds from the benefit will go to the Hancock County Food Drive. The event will feature heavy appetizers, an auction, raffle, and music by the Trisha Mason Band and Hugh Bowden and Stephen Bowman. Tickets are $35 in advance and $40 at the door and are available by calling Flynn at 669-2525 or Matthews at (770) 584-2778.
Matthews and Flynn said their goal is to maintain a space where there is a feeling of comradery between staff and clients. Many clients choose to volunteer at the pantry, some make financial contributions when they are able. Matthews recalls that at last year’s Hancock County Food Drive, the pantry’s “biggest single donor was one of our clients.”
Flynn points out that clients are humbled and thankful after a shopping appointment, often asking what they can do in return. She suggests clients just pay it forward when they can, assuring, “someday, you will find that way.”