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PORTLAND, Maine — Since the coronavirus hit, Mainers have heard the same messages. Wash your hands often — and for 20 seconds. Practice social distancing. No meeting in large groups.
But when one community leader tried to help get that message out, she realized the needs run much deeper.
“We were sending out information and video [messages] saying please don’t leave your homes,” said Crystal Cron. “People were saying thank you so much, but I need to eat.”
To help alleviate that need, Cron and a cohort of volunteers started a “food brigade,” spending last week delivering food to low-income people, no questions asked.
“We’re going into poorer neighborhoods and apartment complexes, places we know where poor people live,” she said.
Midday Saturday, Cron and nearly a dozen other volunteers worked from a makeshift “headquarters” from the parking lot of her East End apartment building. They measured rations of beans, rice, onions, garlic, potatoes, lime and ginger into Ziploc bags — tidy deliverable units which they stuffed into boxes. Each of them was decked in a face mask and gloves, hovering above their own individual tables with bottles of hand sanitizer sticking up like knights on a chess board.
Later that day, the group delivered some 600 meals worth of rice and beans on the doorsteps of people they identified in some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, such as Parkside, East Bayside and the affordable housing complexes in Sagamore Village and Munjoy South.
It’s a “public health initiative,” they say. In a pandemic, it’s designed to travel faster than the help that poor people can expect from federal and state legislators.
“We were targeting Latinx folks because most of them don’t have any access to state aid or any other social safety net,” said Cron, who worked as a community health worker with the Maine Mobile Health Program for three years. “But we know that a lot of people are suffering right now, so we’re going into buildings and just dropping at every door.”
Cron is an organizer and founder of Presente Maine, a Portland-based group that works to assess the needs of poor communities. She grew up poor in Maine too, and said she formed the group to pay special attention to poor communities of people of color because “we had been feeling isolated and forgotten for decades.”
Cron estimates she has worked close to 100 hours this past week, ordering bulk food from distributors and local farmers, whose sales to restaurants have all but disappeared. A farmer in Lewiston said he was working with Presente Maine to supply them with potatoes, and Cron said she bought much of the other food from the Boston distributor Baldor.
The schedule of deliveries is still evolving. Last week, the big dropoff days were Wednesday and Saturday, when the crew went door to door leaving food on doorsteps from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“We started with 50 rations, then we did 150, and then today we’re hoping to put out 600 bags,” Cron said Saturday.
Their effort seems to be making a difference. One woman who lived with her family in an apartment at Munjoy South, did not know Cron or Presente Maine, but said that the unexpected delivery was very helpful.
The delivery of beans, rice, garlic, onions, limes and potatoes she received the evening before went quickly.
“We have a big family, so the food is all gone now,” the 40-something woman told the BDN at her apartment Sunday afternoon.
The woman, who did not wish to give her name, had shopped for bread and other items earlier in the week, but said it felt scary to go into grocery stores and other public zones while the virus was spreading in Cumberland County.
Many people living in Portland were already food insecure before COVID-19 reached the state. As Mainers with savings raced to supermarkets and bought food and other supplies in bulk, people on low or fixed incomes, or who rely on SNAP or WIC benefits, don’t always have savings to dip into. They also more frequently rely on public transportation to get to the supermarket, putting them at greater exposure to the virus.
Cron hopes to expand the food brigade to other communities soon. The group brought food to Lewiston on Sunday, and plan to expand the menu of raw food items to include cheese, pasta and dishes that form staple diets from other cultures.
Edier Ramirez, a Portland resident and fellow organizer with Presente Maine, credited donors who donated to the effort through a GoFundMe campaign and a roster of social service providers and other volunteers who have helped over the past week to identify vulnerable communities where food drops could be scheduled. Ramirez answered questions in Spanish through an interpreter.
“It’s been really hard, but we’re struggling and doing the work because somebody has to do it,” said Ramirez.
Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus