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SOUTH PORTLAND — Fresh fruit first catches your eye: bananas, apples and oranges all displayed neatly on the long table. And across the room, on another table, baked goods beckon: pies, cakes, and doughnuts.
In the next room two women sit at a desk, engaging in a friendly conversation, as one of them studies a computer screen. Then beyond them you can walk among shelves stacked neatly with packaged food: cereals, spaghetti, and canned goods. Step into the walk-in freezer and frozen turkeys and chickens greet you.
The setting, make no mistake, is not Hannaford or Whole Foods, but the food quality measures right up there. It is a Thursday morning between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., and you are in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St., the weekly home of the South Portland Food Cupboard, the brainchild and passion of an extraordinary woman.
Meet Sybil Riemensnider, the miracle worker behind the scenes who has dedicated her life to supplying people in need with life’s most basic necessity. As director of the Food Cupboard, she plays whatever role she must: volunteer coordinator, fundraiser, food-gatherer, public relations specialist, etc.
Riemensnider was a founding member of the Food Cupboard when it began in July 1997 at the Holy Cross Church as a project of the Social Justice and Peace Committee.
“That first month we served 28 individuals. In July 2010 we served 261 families. And during the current year we’re serving about 20 to 30 percent more families every month than last year,” she said.
Clearly, the need is real and growing every year. And Riemensnider is just the person to help the Food Cupboard cope with the rising demand.
A microbiologist during her professional career, she explained her passion for what she does and why she does it: “I have no children, and I’ve always felt this great need to help people. And I love food – shopping, cooking and baking. “
Riemensnider takes great pride in the quality of the food served by the Food Cupboard (“I’m a stickler for good healthy food,” she said) and the welcoming atmosphere. She insists that the volunteers treat everyone with respect, from the moment they walk in to be registered until the time they leave with a week’s worth of a balanced diet of food, aided by volunteers who push the loaded carts.
“We never judge,” she said. “You or I could be the one in need tomorrow.”
Space precludes a listing of all the organizations, supermarkets, food cooperatives, credit unions, school groups, and individuals that provide food, funding and service to the Food Cupboard every year.
“I’m not afraid to ask,” Riemensnider said. “And I’m careful to thank everyone who gives to the Food Cupboard, no matter how large the gift.”
And ask and ask she does. Every day. In many ways. All year. At no pay.
The Food Cupboard is a totally volunteer (and ecumenical) endeavor. No one gets paid for the time put in, including Riemensnider, who estimates she puts in 30 to 40 hours a week.
“I want every cent to go towards providing healthy food to people in need,” she said.
Riemensnider notes that the rewards come from the heartfelt “thank yous” she and the volunteers receive from many people. Sometimes people write notes that convey the message: “Thank you so much. I never would have made it without the Food Cupboard.”
To find out how you can support the South Portland Food Cupboard, contact Riemensnider at 874-0379.
Sybil Riemensnider, executive director of the South Portland Food Cupboard, organizes donated food with other volunteers in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St.
Part of a twice-monthly series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland.