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Demand soars at Falmouth Food Pantry

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Demand soars at Falmouth Food Pantry

FALMOUTH — As summer temperatures have climbed, so has demand at the Falmouth Food Pantry.

In June, the pantry experienced its busiest month in its five-year history, serving 350 families, said Dorothy Blanchette, manager and one of the lead volunteers at the pantry, where more than 100 people donate their time.

Five years ago the pantry served only 35 families – as many as it now serves on a typical day, Blanchette said.

On Tuesday, Blanchette rushed around the small, two-room pantry, as clients filled the narrow hallway, and spilled out the door into the rain.

"The year (need) first spiked was when the recession hit at the end of 2008, and then in 2009," she said. "Then it really spiked in 2011 and 2012 and it just went up and up and up."

The spike has spread donated supplies thin on occasion. Donations tend to drop off during the summer because school is out, church activity slows down and people go on vacation, Blanchette said.

Summer is especially hard for kids in Falmouth who depend on free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school, she said, because the food is not available.

Falmouth has one of the wealthiest populations in the state – the annual median household income is about $92,000, according to the latest Census data – which excludes it from federal funding for summer meals programs like the one in Portland.

Serving so many families creates space problems for the pantry, which is crowded when more than three people are in a room. The pantry moved into the former police station at Town Hall a few years ago, but has been looking to expand since 2011.

It may have a chance to do that with a comprehensive study of Town Hall currently being conducted by the consulting firm Oak Point Associates, of Biddeford.

Theo Holtwijk, Falmouth's director of long-range planning, said the study is looking at several issues the building has, including air quality, energy efficiency and the use of space.

The Town Council will likely talk about a potential renovation project at its retreat on Thursday and how it stacks up against other needs the town has, Town Manager Nathan Poore said.

"Right now it's embedded within the Town Hall project, although it could be a separate project," he said, noting that the project is more of an internal "guts" project and not a flashy redesign.

While a decision on the renovation could still be months away, Blanchette hopes to gain access to an abutting room that contains some copy machines and part of the town Finance Department, to help provide more storage space. She and other volunteers currently use their homes for temporary food storage.

Although much of the community is wealthy, Blanchette said about a third of the pantry's clients are from Falmouth. The remainder are overflow from Portland and Westbrook.

"The majority of the families who come here have at least one person working, it's just that the salaries are so low," Blanchette said. "And with the cost of food going up, people can't afford to buy healthy food."

In Maine, Electronic Benefit Transfers, or food stamps, average out to just more than $4 per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The pantry also has to overcome a language barrier, because many of its clients are refugees and immigrants.

Hameid Altaee, who is originally from Iraq and has been a volunteer at the pantry for about four years, said many of the refugees drive to Falmouth from Portland because the food pantry there often has too many clients.

Altaee speaks Arabic and has been helpful in guiding Arabic-speaking refugees to the pantry and getting them the items they need, Blanchette said.

In addition to providing food, the pantry also serves as a kind of social services hub, helping people find employment and assisting refugees with housing.

The volunteers also serve as social workers, helping people who have been forced from their old lives and jobs because of war.

"We have a few clients who held very prestigious jobs in Iraq and now have to come through the food pantry," Blanchette said. "It takes an emotional toll."

She said it's similar with clients who are American citizens and have lost their jobs, need to feed their families, but are embarrassed to come to the pantry.

"I'll sometimes deliver to them a couple of times, but I try to tell them, 'nobody is watching you here. Everybody is in the same boat,'" Blachette said.

The pantry has several partners who provide the bulk of its food: a community garden managed by a high school student, the Hannaford and Shaw's grocery stores, and a Somalian immigrant farmer in Lewiston who provides fresh produce during the summer. It also receives donations from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.

While the pantry is only open a couple days a week, Blanchette said she and other volunteers make deliveries to 30-40 individuals and families who are either elderly or have a disability.

The Falmouth pantry is also one of few pantries that provides halal and kosher meat for religious clients, Blanchette said.

The pantry does not hold regular fundraisers, but planning has already started for its annual supper, scheduled Oct. 17 at Falmouth Congregational Church on Falmouth Road. Blanchette said the  event is the pantry's primary source of funding for the year.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.