CAMDEN – Nestled on Mt. Battie Street in Camden is the Christian pantry of the Camden area. Many in the community might be shocked to learn that the pantry will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next September. Others might be surprised to learn that food insecurity in Camden and eight surrounding communities continues to be an issue that has dictated their needs for the past 20 years.
21 years ago, worshipers from five area churches – The First Congregational, John Street United Methodist, Chestnut Street Baptist, Our Lady of Good Hope, and St. Thomas Episcopal – came together to create a pantry. Organizers were invited to speak to local philanthropists Charles and Julie Cawley who offered to build a pantry or provide funding; the group chose construction.
Two decades and an expansion later, the CACFP is run by the five churches and serves residents of Appleton, Camden, Hope, Islesboro, Lincolnville, Rockport, Searsmont, Union and Washington.
Although the pantry is only open two days a week, there is a massive behind-the-scenes operation, run entirely by volunteers.
There are food pickups to be done several times a week in Camden Hannaford for fresh meats and milk, and in Rockland Hannaford for bread and pastry; hikes to the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn once or twice a month and the Salvation Army for fresh produce, courtesy of the Good Shepherd Food Bank; Monthly pickups of Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program items in Warren and random trips to grocery stores to refill as needed.
Some volunteers come on Sundays to settle in for the week, some fill orders and help customers during open houses, and others bring the box to the transfer station. Volunteer hours topped 450 in April and 350 in May.
“It really takes a village,” said Pauline Johnstone, longtime volunteer and board member. Johnstone has worked with CACFP from the very beginning and enthusiastically explains why she is staying. “I love working with these volunteers and being able to do so to serve those in need. “
Johnstone understands the challenges many people face and, as a nurse, sees the opportunity to provide good, fresh food to their clients. She is grateful to all of their suppliers, including Erickson Fields Preserve in Rockport, owned and operated by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Led by Aaron Englander, Erickson Fields Preserve Program Manager, the Teen Ag Program takes high school students to preserved land – planting, growing and harvesting vegetables for local pantries, schools and restaurants.
“We receive great products from June to October from Aaron and the Teen Ag Program. It’s a great initiative and wonderful to know that the students have helped our clients, ”said Johnstone.
With all of this great support, what’s the biggest challenge facing the Camden Area Christian Food Pantry these days? Lack of funds? Lack of food? Surprisingly, it’s a lack of traffic.
“During the pandemic, we really thought our traffic would increase dramatically, but it didn’t,” board member Bill Freeman said. We met via Zoom with other Maine pantries, and most have not seen an increase in demand either. “
The reasons for this vary, with some feeling that continued federal stimulus money has played a role, or nationally televised images of long pantry queues. With a varied clientele of singles, large families and the elderly, some see it as a source of pride while others explain: “I don’t want to come and take from someone who is worse than me.
But here’s the good news: The Camden Area Christian Food Pantry has an abundance of food and wants to share it with as many people as possible. “We have several freezers full of meat, as well as a lot of bread, beans, milk, eggs, pasta, fruits and vegetables, etc. Applying for eligibility is easy. “We are happy to answer questions and assist potential clients with their applications,” Johnstone said. “They can even take it home, fill it up and bring it back. “
In order to best extend their food allowance, the CACFP recommends that customers go to the pantry first and stock up on what they need before heading to the grocery store to refill, rather than l ‘reverse.
Serving those in need with a smile is what awaits customers at Camden Area Christian Food Pantry, and many patrons feel compelled to show their appreciation. A family sends a note every week. “You are my rocking food bank. You are stars, angels, lovers. And that’s exactly what volunteers think of their clients.