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Brunswick Christmas meal responds to community's hunger

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Brunswick Christmas meal responds to community's hunger

BRUNSWICK — The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program opened its doors on Christmas this year for the first time in its 30-year year history, a recognition that hunger doesn't take a holiday. 

But although it was open like any other day, the planned meal was anything but ordinary, prepared with help from professional chefs from Brunswick restaurants.

MCHPP, which runs a soup kitchen and a food pantry at its Union Street headquarters, normally closes down on major national holidays.

And since so many other churches and restaurants usually offer free meals on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, MCHPP takes the opportunity to give volunteers the day off, Hannah Chatalbash, a program associate at MCHPP, said.

But this year it didn't seem like there were many other options for people who rely on a free holiday meal, so the group decided to open for its regular lunch service from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

"We decided that the need in the community this year was a little too great," Chatalbash said.

To make the occasion special, MCHPP reached out to chefs at Frontier Cafe, the Brunswick Hotel and Tavern, and Richard's Restaurant, who came up with a menu including kale, white bean and sausage stew, salad, rolls, and dessert. 

Considering her restaurant's capacity and means, it would have been "irresponsible" not to assist the Christmas lunch, said Noly Lopez, Frontier's executive chef.

Kale and sausage stew came immediately to mind as the perfect main course to serve, Lopez said, because the meal's unique and satisfying combination fit perfectly with the occasion. 

"I wanted it to be something substantial, but also something special," he explained. 

While he knows many local families go hungry, Lopez said he was surprised that relatively few organizations are actively providing assistance in the Brunswick area. 

"You really want to see those institutions thrive," he said, "especially at Christmas."

Visits to MCHPP's food pantry increased by 10 percent in the month of November, compared to the same time last year, an indication of the growing need the program is satisfying. 

Similarly, the number of families fed with Thanksgiving meal packages from the pantry grew from 448 last year to 515 this year, a 15 percent increase. The program also opened its kitchen on Veterans Day for the first time this year, and served more than 150 people. 

"All of these things combined tell us that we need to be open on Christmas," Chatalbash said. 

Considering the scale of the need, MCHPP intends to hold longer hours in 2015 in order to meet the growing need. 

'We're doing what we can to be open more, be open longer," Chatalbash said. "We don't foresee the need decreasing, so we just need to be able to keep increasing until we meet it."

With many local families struggling economically, MCHPP's heightened profile might also be bringing more people through its doors, Chatalbash explained. 

Since it started, the MCHPP has grown to serve families from as far away as Bowdoinham and Lisbon Falls, and added services like its backpack program, which sends students home from school with weekend food for their families. 

More families from towns with an active backpack program seem to be coming in to use the food pantry services, but there is no way to prove cause and effect, Chatalbash said.

A draw-down in food stamp assistance, and the "impossible choice" some families have during the coldest months between buying heating oil or food might also be driving demand, she added.

"There are so many factors that go into it," Chatalbash said. "I think each year, we'll probably add on another holiday, another day we were previously closed, until we either reach a threshold that we can't meet financially, or there isn't a need for it."

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire.