On a recent Thursday afternoon, the parking lot of the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church on Monument Street in Winslow looked for all the world like it was hosting a bustling farmers’ market.
Patrons perused card tables laden with tempting piles of apples, squash, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, grapes, and more. But as they filled their car trunks with produce, eggs, and milk, no money changed hands. Rather than a farmers’ market, it was a mobile food pantry run by the Winslow Community Cupboard intended to conveniently get food into the hands of those who could use it most. And if they wind up with a smile on their faces, so much the better.
“There is just tremendous need out there,” said David Freidenreich, the Pulver Family Professor of Jewish Studies and the associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. “The problem isn’t a lack of food. The food exists. It’s about how we get the food to the people who need it, in ways that affirm their dignity.”
The traveling food distribution events are happening because the nonprofit organization recently received an $86,000 grant from the Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank to purchase two refrigerated trailers that make it possible to bring food to places like the Monument Street parking lot.
Under Freidenreich’s direction, Colby students Serena Blasius ’24, Jillian Dowling ’24, and Sam Posner ’24 played a key role in guiding the grant-proposal process last summer. They met with people from the Good Shepherd Food Bank and then worked with Cora Clukey, the College’s director of recruitment and employment, who is the volunteer grant writer for the Winslow Community Cupboard.
“It was really the students who gave feedback to push us in the right direction. They were very helpful,” Clukey said.
The last mile
For Bruce Bottiglierie, the volunteer operations manager for the cupboard, the new refrigerated trailers help do just that. Three days a week, he and others pack them and tow them to central locations in Winslow, Skowhegan, Waterville, and other communities to bring food closer to the people. “There are still a lot of people that are proud, or don’t know about food banks,” he said. “The focus of the past year was how do we get that last mile.”
Making progress toward that mile has been a blessing during a time of inflation and growing need, Bottiglierie said. During one recent two-hour stretch in Clinton, the volunteers distributed more than 2,000 pounds of potatoes from the refrigerated trailers, along with lots of other produce. The afternoon they rolled up to the Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Skowhegan, there were 100 people waiting.
“I ran out of some of the food and had to call volunteers to help restock,” he said.
Those numbers aren’t anomalies. The cupboard opened in March 2020 at the Winslow Congregational Church in response to the pandemic and distributed food to about 40 families. This fall, more than 200 families from roughly two dozen communities come to the cupboard on its twice-monthly open days. To meet needs at other times, organizers have started a “Freedge,” or free community fridge, on the property. It’s open to anyone in need of emergency food and is part of a worldwide initiative that has just three locations in the state of Maine.
“Our goal is to give them as much food as we can,” Bottiglierie said. “We pride ourselves in making people feel comfortable. There’s no stigma when you come onto our property.”
Making a real difference
Bottiglierie relies on a network of volunteers to help with the daunting and important task of keeping food-insecure Mainers from being hungry. This fall, two of those are Dowling and Maddie McWilliams ’25, who are taking Freidenreich’s Faith, Class, and Community course. Each student is matched with one of five local organizations, the professor said. They are working in teams to volunteer and help leaders develop practical plans for the future as groups work to overcome technological and other challenges.
“The mandate was, ‘Can you help us? Can you find ways to have students make a real difference in our community?’ And that’s what the students have been trying to do,” Freidenreich said.
Dowling, 20, a biology major from Princeton, N.J., came to the cupboard on Halloween afternoon ready to work, though the specific tasks differ from week to week.
“I never know quite what I’m going to do when I come in,” she said.
That day, she sat in a small room lined with shelves of cereal, canned goods, and staples to calculate the total numbers of pounds the cupboard received from different donors during the month of October. The final number was a mind-boggling 112,435 pounds, or 56 tons, of donated food.
For Dowling, who is interested in going into nursing or public health, working with the cupboard has been galvanizing.
Dowling appreciates the dedication that Bottiglierie and other volunteers bring to the work.
“This organization and a few others are great at giving people real autonomy over their choices,” she said. “That level of self-determination is an element of public health that we don’t talk about a lot.”
It’s been inspiring to see how the Winslow Community Cupboard has taken the grant she helped apply for and translate it into direct action that helps the community, Dowling said.
“I’m really hopeful and excited,” she said.
And for people like Cassie, a Winslow mom who went to Monument Street after seeing a Facebook post about the free food available there, the existence of the mobile food pantry has come as a relief. Rising prices have meant it’s harder for her to purchase the fruit and milk her toddler daughter likes to have every day.
“When I saw those items, I was excited,” she said, adding that the friendliness of the volunteers was an added boon. “It’s very warm and welcoming. You don’t feel the shame of walking up and getting help.”
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