PORTLAND, Maine — A Portland-based organization which collects and distributes food to soup kitchens, food pantries and other social service providers is launching an ambitious effort to build a new kitchen and consolidate its operation at one spot.

With homeless rates and food insecurity in Maine’s largest city rising, Wayside Food Programs is seeing more demand than ever, organization officials said. In 2011, the group for the first time distributed more than 2 million pounds of food to people in need, expanding its reach to 42 partner food pantries and agencies, as well as up to six distribution sites for free community meals.

Now — as Portland Mayor Michael Brennan kicks off his Initiative for Healthy Sustainable Food Systems in earnest, seeking ways to use more locally produced food in battling back hunger rates in the city — Wayside is planning major changes aimed at making sure more of its resources are devoted to distributing a healthier and greater amount of food than on transportation and overhead.

Wayside, which long operated out of three locations around the city, has launched plans to consolidate around a new 830-square-foot kitchen at 135 Walton St. The new kitchen, now under construction, will be twice the size of Wayside’s previous kitchen, located in a facility shared with the Portland Public Schools.

The organization’s storage, which has long been at another Walton Street site, and the administrative offices have already moved to the location. The administrative offices were previously located in the Bayside neighborhood.

“This new kitchen will allow us to do so much more,” said Don Morrison, Wayside’s operations manager, in a statement. “With the kitchen next to the warehouse, we will be able to make use of perishables in a more timely manner. And having our full inventory of food readily available, without the need to transport, means greater flexibility in meal planning.”

Wayside also operates mobile food pantries and gives out healthy snacks to area children through a partnership with the Portland Police Department’s Community Policing program.

To pay for the changes, Wayside is launching a $100,000 capital campaign, with early contributions of $20,000 from the Sam L. Cohen Foundation and a $35,000 challenge grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation.

A study conducted last fall by the Maine Hunger Initiative found that 52 percent of the family representatives who pick up food at Cumberland County food pantries have at least one job.

Statewide, more than 200,000 people are listed as “food insecure,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which ranks Maine as having the sixth-highest rate of hunger in the nation.

The USDA estimates that 15.4 percent of Maine households are food insecure, meaning the household lacks access to enough food to meet nutrition needs.

“Bringing all of Wayside’s operations under one roof and having an on-site kitchen will go a long way toward helping us fulfill our mission of feeding Maine’s hungry,” said Mary Zwolinski, Wayside’s executive director, in a statement.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.