During pandemic, our community steps up to keep neighbors fed
Last March, as many of us in Maine were looking forward to gearing up for a break in the weather and preparing to enjoy our eventual wonderful summer, the coronavirus pandemic hit us like the wave of a tsunami. Overnight, schools across Maine closed, businesses across the state closed, and many were left frightened and uncertain as to how to proceed and how these closures would impact our communities. State government shifted much of its operations to remote work and the Legislature abruptly adjourned, as all of us in the Legislative Branch agreed that it was the safest thing to do as we tried to navigate these uncertainties.
Home in our districts, as we faced these uncertainties, it quickly became apparent that this global pandemic would have significant implications on not only our towns, cities and our state, but on our country and the world. In our communities, one of the very first things we did in mid-March was to contact the superintendents of our schools. What would happen to the kids receiving free and reduced lunch? Many children across Maine often get both their breakfast and lunch through their school lunch programs. Next, we contacted our town managers and city officials, our contacts at AARP and the OOB Community Friendly Connection and Age Friendly Saco. How will we assure that our older adults and others facing food insecurity would be provided for?
As a social worker with a long history of advocating for our most vulnerable in Maine, ensuring that those in need have basic necessities including food, shelter and medications, and as an advocate for protecting our seniors through property tax relief and elder abuse prevention, we both knew we had to jump into action. We worked hard to help ensure that our children, our older adults and others in our community facing adversity and challenges presented by COVID-19 were well taken care of.
We immediately convened weekly meetings with municipal leaders, including our town manager and city mayor, our superintendent of schools, our friends from the OOB Community Food Pantry and Saco Food Pantry, Oceanwood Camp and Conference Center, our friends from OOB Community Friendly Connection and Age Friendly Saco, and Saco Parks and Recreation Seniority Program. We had these meetings along with town and city councilors, our State Senator Justin Chenette and all of our legislative colleagues and municipal leaders to pull up our collective sleeves and figure out how can make sure that people in our communities in need of food didn’t go hungry.
We were excited in Saco to collaborate with community leaders and to be able to work closely with our city leaders, the business community, restaurateurs and others to find solutions for those most in need being impacted by this pandemic. In Saco, we were able to partner with Saco Parks and Recreation to volunteer over 130 hours packing and distribute over 3,000 meals to Saco’s older adults. And we were able to provide support and insight to OOB to implement steps to replicate Saco’s successful initiative.
But as summer quickly approached and many were able to enjoy being outdoors and active, we realized implementing these initiatives could become a challenge. We were continually mindful, however, that the reality of food insecurity remained.
We were thrilled to learn of an initiative established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act, which provided boxes of food free at no cost through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a component of the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The program is supporting farmers with up to $3 billion in purchases of fresh produce, dairy and meat and distributing these products to low-income Americans in need.
When no Maine distributors were awarded a contract in the first round of funding for the program, our Federal Maine Delegation successfully urged USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to rectify the program’s shortcomings. With their advocacy, two Maine food distributors were awarded a combined total of nearly $3.5 million to participate in the program.
Partnering with the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, we in the Saco Bay region were able to distribute food to families last month at Biddeford Middle School. When we learned that the Diocese was interested in returning to our region in August, we once again pulled up our sleeves and contacted out community partners to secure a site to distribute food boxes to families in our communities. The OOB Recreation Department immediately proposed the OOB Ballpark as a distribution site. Additionally, they, along with the Saco Parks and Recreation Department, offered to deliver these food boxes to folks unable to get to the Ballpark for pick up.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of us in ways that we might never have imagined. The Saco Bay community has come together to meet the needs of our neighbors. Together, we are rising to the extraordinary challenges this pandemic brought to us. As difficult, challenging and troubling as these times are, we are persevering.
No child, no family, no person should ever go hungry.
This month’s distribution will take place on Monday, Aug. 17, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the OOB Ballpark, 7 Ballpark Way. For more information or to schedule a delivery, call 934-0860 for Old Orchard Beach or 710-5029 for Saco.
Rep. Lori K. Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, is a Licensed Master Social Worker serving her first term in the Legislature on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, is an attorney serving her Second term in the Legislature and first term as the House chair of the Judiciary Committee.