Food for Fines a 'huge success' in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Earlier this month, the South Portland Public Library launched a “Food for Fines” program to benefit the South Portland Food Cupboard.

From Dec. 1-19, library patrons with outstanding late fees could donate any nonperishable food item at either the main or branch libraries and have their penalties waived.

Now, organizers say the program was more successful that they could have hoped.

About 40 cases and 15 bags of food and other goods were donated over the three-week period, in addition to cash donations.

While the library used the fee-waiver program as bait to lure people to give to the pantry, it appears residents were simply in the giving mood.

Director Kevin Davis said the library did not notice a drop in late fees collected, which means that many patrons paid their fines and also donated to the Food Cupboard, which is in the basement of (but unaffiliated with) St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St.

“In addition, many people with no fines made donations to the (pantry),” Davis said. “In short, the program was very successful.”

Susan Samberg, a circulation librarian who coordinated the effort, said the food drive exceeded her expectations for both donations and bringing people back into the library.

“I think it was a real coming together point for the community, especially at this time to give something back,” Samberg said.

In some cases, Samberg said patrons brought back long-overdue books, which some people avoid returning when they have late fees.

Samberg said one patron told her that he was so excited about the program that he circled the date on his calendar so he could have his fines forgiven. Another couple, she said, went to the store and bought two fresh bags of food to donate.

“We had endless supplies and food being brought in,” she added. “We had a table filled, we had boxes of supplies out back, and we even had people bringing in food after the program was over.”

Food Cupboard Director Sybil Riemensnider called the program a “huge success” and said it far exceeded her expectations.

“It was a huge, huge donation,” Riemensnider said. “We were a bit overcome. … It was unreal.”

The assistance comes at a time when donations to the Food Cupboard are on the decline, but demand is on the rise.

The pantry, which is open on Thursdays, excluding holidays, serves hundreds of families throughout greater Portland who earn up to 150 percent above the federal poverty level.

Federal income guidelines vary, depending on how many people are in the family, but a family of four making less than $2,700 a month is eligible.

According to its annual report, the pantry took in more than $82,000 in 2008-2009. In 2009-2010, however, the group received less than $70,000 – a 15 percent decrease.

Over that same period, the pantry experienced a 17 percent increase in the number of people seeking food assistance. Riemensnider said the pantry has served 260 families, or 617 people, in each of the last six months.

Riemensnider said she was surprised not only by the volume of food donated, but also by the donors.

“It was people who hadn’t thought about giving before who decided to donate,” she said. “It was a great idea.”

Davis said he was thrilled the program worked out for both groups.

“The program created a lot of feeling of good will within the library,” Davis said. “Library visitors, as well as staff, were happy to be doing something in support of the community.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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