Dixie Shaw has a vision for feeding the hungry in Aroostook County, and her success has received national attention.

Director of hunger and relief services for Catholic Charities Maine, Shaw is seen as a mentor for her counterparts across the nation working to replicate the Farm for ME program based in Caribou.

“This has been a record-breaking year,” she said last week of the program dedicated to delivering locally grown vegetables to The County’s 24 food pantries, not just after harvest but all through the winter. Aroostook food pantries serve 23,000 of The County’s 70,000 residents.

“We have what other regions don’t: partnerships and resources,” Shaw said.

Farm for ME grows root crops on land donated by Caribou farmer Ryan Guerrette, who also lends his equipment. Other county farms donate crops and allow Catholic Charities workers to glean the fields for vegetables left behind after harvest.

Food not distributed in the fall is flash-frozen by Northern Girl, a microprocessor in Van Buren, and stored for distribution throughout the winter. Catholic Charities has storage facilities in Monticello and Caribou with onsite freezers capable of holding a total of 60,000 pounds of food, coolers capable of holding 6,000 pounds and a refrigerated tractor-trailer that can hold up to 40,000 pounds.

Because Northern Girl can flash-freeze fresh vegetables as they are harvested, more food can stay in The County for distribution in the winter.

“Pantries can only handle so much fresh [produce],” Shaw said. “Now we can keep it longer for the coldest, hardest part of winter.” Previously, excess produce from the fall harvest was shipped to the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn for distribution statewide.

“What’s grown here stays here to feed Aroostook County. It’s very unique and different. No other farming operation is doing this,” Shaw said, adding she was invited to a Catholic Charities USA conference in Spokane, Washington, to present Farm for ME as a model for other regions. “We’re fortunate to have a microprocessor in our backyard.”

In February, Aroostook food pantries received 4,800 pounds of frozen carrots, rutabaga and potatoes, diced and combined in 5-pound packages labeled “Frozen 3/4″ Diced Root Medley.”

“Dixie fell in love with our retail medley,” Chris Hallweaver said of Northern Girl, which first marketed the blend. Praising her ability to coordinate farming and processing to feed the hungry with local food, he said, “This year it came together. Dixie is connecting the loop and keeping people employed.”

The medley is 25 percent carrots, 25 percent rutabagas and 50 percent potatoes.

“It’s a meal in a bag. You can cook them as-is or add a soup bone and make a soup,” Shaw said. Cooks can use what they need and return the package to the freezer. “It’s convenient, easy and [in a form] people are accustomed to.”

Raw vegetables fresh from the field can present a challenge for people unfamiliar with how to use them or older people no longer able to prepare meals as they once did. Processing and flash-freezing helps assure the food will be used.

In January, Farm for ME distributed frozen broccoli donated by local farmers. The offering for March will be beets and rutabaga. Farm for ME products are processed for free distribution only through The County’s food pantries and are not for sale.

Since Farm for ME began in 2013, the amount of fresh produce gathered has increased from 8,870 pounds to 323,561 pounds. The first year all the food was harvested from fields donated for use by Farm for ME. Beginning in 2014, farmers invited workers to glean vegetables left in harvested fields to add to the supply. In the last two years, local farmers also donated potatoes, broccoli and other vegetables: 70,034 pounds in 2015 and 268,650 pounds in 2016.

“It’s pretty darned impressive,” Shaw said, attributing the remarkable increase in donations, not only to the generosity of County growers but also to their acceptance of her as a farmer. “I hang out with them,” she said. She belongs to the Farm Bureau and has been a guest on “The Potato Picker Special,” a local television program aired early every morning during harvest to provide information to workers.

“I’ve become one of them,” she said. “I absolutely love it with all my heart.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at olmstead@maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.