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BRUNSWICK — In a week that Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program Executive Director Karen Parker described as “tumultuous,” the Shaw’s supermarket in Brunswick cut off, then reinstated, donations of food nearing its sell-by date to the food pantry and soup kitchen.
What started as a local scuffle ended with a letter to the company from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and a promise from the supermarket chain’s president to re-examine the corporate policy on donations of perishable food.
Parker said in an interview Monday that during the week of Dec. 1, MCHPP volunteers encountered a problem when making a routine pick-up from the Bath Road Shaw’s.
Usually, MCHPP volunteers pick up perishable food from Shaw’s twice a week, according to Parker. “(But) one day, our volunteer went to pick up and he was informed it was going to be the last one,” she said.
Shaw’s officially changed its corporate policy to discontinue donations of perishable foods to food pantries and soup kitchens in 2013. The Brunswick store, however, had continued donating to MCHPP.
Shaw’s has not said why the company ended its donation program two years ago, and the reason the Brunswick store was allowed to continue donating is unclear. A call to a Shaw’s representative for an explanation was not returned.
MCHPP receives 14 percent of its total food donations from Shaw’s, Parker said, which works out to about 100,000 pounds a year.
That food is mainly produce, meat and dairy approaching the sell-by date. “It’s what we call high-protein food,” Parker said.
If Shaw’s were to pull out for good, replacing that amount of food “would have been way more than we could afford,” she said.
Using an estimate from the national nonprofit Feeding America that purchasing food wholesale costs $1.69 a pound, MCHPP would have to find about $169,000 a year to keep its operations supplied.
In its most recent IRS filing, MCHPP listed its 2014 total revenue as $279,500, and total expenses as $277,100.
Parker said her organization began making financial pleas to donors to help fill gaps while Shaw’s was not donating. Things really heated up, however, after word got out over social media and through news reports from outlets like Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
On Dec. 10, Pingree’s office released a letter to Shaw’s President Jim Rice from the 1st Congressional District Democrat.
“I was very disappointed this week to learn that because of corporate policy, Shaw’s stores in Maine have stopped donating perishable food to organizations that are helping feed Maine families in need,” Pingree said. “I am writing to ask you to explain the corporate policy that has reportedly led to the decision to stop donations, and the reasoning behind it.”
According to her office, Pingree was answered with a Friday-night phone call from Rice, who told her any stores with arrangements for donations to local food pantries, such as the Brunswick and Bangor stores, could continue to distribute donations as usual.
He also said that the company would re-examine the policy that ended the donations of food nearing its sell-by date to local hunger organizations.
A citizen’s petition on the website MoveOn.org, asking Shaw’s to change its donation policy, had 2,366 signatures this week, with a goal of reaching 3,000.
Donations have restarted to the Brunswick food pantry, Parker confirmed Wednesday night.
“One of the things (this situation) really does highlight … is that we rely a lot on donations, both from individuals and from grocery stores,” Parker said. Ninety percent of MCHPP’s food is donated, she said, and only 10 percent is purchased.
“It’s a fragile sort of line,” she added.
Parker also hopes Shaw’s will reinstate the company’s policy of donating nearly expired food from all of its stores.
“We’re one food pantry in Maine, and there’s many, many (programs) that have not been reinstated,” she said.
Updated Dec. 17: Donations from the Brunswick Shaw’s to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program have resumed.
The Shaw’s supermarket off Bath Road in Brunswick informed the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program early this month that it would discontinue its donations of food approaching its sell-by date.