Open Table MDI co-founder Mahandeva Singh adds roasted tomatoes to the Caesar salad mix on Jan. 26 in the basement of Bar Harbor Congregational Church. January 26, 2021. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

When Puranjot Kaur and Mahandeva Singh decided to create a community meal program in Bar Harbor more than three years ago, they wanted to provide a place where neighbors could regularly gather for a meal — whether they needed the food or not.

The Bar Harbor couple missed seeing their neighbors at Food For All, a free weekly supper held at Bar Harbor’s Holy Redeemer Catholic Church that had recently ended after a five-year run. With their new program, Open Table MDI, they wanted to replicate the sense of community that meal fostered. They chose the motto, “Building community, one meal at a time.”

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaur and Singh have kept Open Table MDI going. They now provide takeout and delivery meals only, which complicates the community-building mission, but there is more demand for their food than ever as food insecurity on Mount Desert Island and around Maine has grown.

In 2020, the number of meals they made and distributed every Tuesday from the basement kitchen of the Bar Harbor Congregational Church grew steadily, according to Kaur. After making roughly 200 to 230 meals a week in 2019, they now make and distribute roughly 350 every Tuesday.

Last month, they had their busiest weeks yet. On Jan. 19 they served 374 community supper meals, of which roughly 150 were delivered to recipients’ homes. The following week, they served 376 meals, including 159 by delivery.

“Demand has steadily increased,” Kaur said.

Growing food insecurity

The Food for All meals Kaur and Singh used as their inspiration highlighted not only the need to foster community on MDI, but also demonstrated that food insecurity is a problem on the island, despite its reputation as an enclave for wealthy summer residents.

“We could see there was a need,” Singh said. “That was eye-opening for us. It is an invisible problem here, more so than other places in Maine.”

The factors that contribute to food insecurity often are “wicked complex,” Singh said, but one is the nature of MDI’s economy. Housing prices are notoriously high, which can result in steep rent or mortgage payments that prompt people to skip meals to make ends meet. And because the island’s dominant tourism industry is so seasonal, many local residents are without an income in the winter and at times may have to choose between going to the supermarket or paying their heating bill.

“One problem can compound another,” Singh said. “It could be a medical condition. It doesn’t take much.”

Clockwise from left: Thayer Fanazick of Trenton, (right) picks up her meal from Open Table MDI volunteer Donna Gaines at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church on Jan. 26; Open Table MDI co-founder Mahandeva Singh sprinkles paprika on pans of roasted broccoli and quinoa casserole; Volunteers prepare vegan Caesar salads; Singh and volunteer Jean Sylvia add rolls to prepared dinners; People wait in a spaced out line. Credit: Bill Trotter and Natalie Williams / BDN

The number of people in MDI’s four towns receiving food assistance from the state has grown during the pandemic. In December, 330 households were signed up, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, up from 296 a year earlier — an 11 percent increase.

To more directly address food insecurity, Open Table has a separate program through which it provides meals, non-perishable foods and produce to residents who sign up to have a box of food delivered every Saturday. That program, which it runs with College of the Atlantic’s Beech Hill Farm, the Bar Harbor Food Pantry and the Ellsworth nonprofit Healthy Acadia, got off the ground in December and delivers food by van or ferry to all of MDI, Trenton and the offshore island communities of Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro and Swans Island.

On Dec. 5, the first-ever delivery day of the MDI Food Access Project, they delivered 33 boxes, reaching 49 recipients. On Jan. 30, they delivered 74 boxes of food that fed 141 people.

Though the MDI Food Access Project — which last fall received a $50,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation — more directly addresses food insecurity, it is open to everyone, as the weekly suppers are. People simply need to sign up so the group knows how many food boxes it needs to deliver, Singh said.

“We never ask,” Singh said of the financial status of people who get food from Open Table. “It’s not our place to ask.”

‘At least you can say hi’

Whether or not someone is short on food, the weekly suppers’ goal of building community is aimed at counteracting some of the economic and demographic forces at work on MDI.

With a tourism-driven economy that gives many residents a frenetic schedule in warmer months and towns that largely close down in the winter, it can be difficult for residents to maintain social relationships. Plus, the island’s year-round population and elementary school enrollments have been declining, which can contribute to a diminished sense of community.

Add in a pandemic, which has curtailed most in-person socializing, and the concept of building community can become rather daunting.

But despite not being able to sit over a bowl of soup with friends for a chat, Trenton resident Thayer Fanazick said she still likes to come pick up a couple of meals for herself and her husband every Tuesday. The vegetarian fare is “slightly different” from what they normally eat, she said, and there still is a chance to have a quick chat and a smile with someone else in line.

“At least you can say ‘hi,’” Fanazick said. “You can have a Zoom meeting [with friends], but it’s not the same.”

Another woman who picked up some meals at the congregational church with her daughter on Jan. 26 said she was picking up food mainly out of need. She declined to give her name, saying her husband was “embarrassed” that they needed a free meal, though she did put a couple of dollars in the donation jar on her way out.

“It’s nice to get a meal you don’t have to make yourself,” she said.

Local couple Tim and Kim O’Brien said a big reason they like coming to the weekly event is for the sense of community. They chatted with a few others while wearing masks and standing socially distanced in line outside the church on Jan. 26.

Volunteers wrap bread rolls in foil ahead of serving and delivering meals for Open Table MDI’s weekly community supper on Tuesday, Jan. 26 in the basement of Bar Harbor Congregational Church. Jan. 26, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Kim O’Brien said, adding that she still prefers sitting down and chatting face to face. “What you have in the winter [for social interaction] is Hannaford. What happens in the summer is you lose people, everyone is so busy.”

As Open Table continues to gain diners for its weekly meals, it might need a bigger space to prepare and package fresh meals. It uses the same space in the church basement to pack up boxes each Saturday for the MDI Food Access Project.

“We’re starting to reach the capacity of what this kitchen can do,” Singh said, adding that Open Table MDI would never have gotten off the ground without the support of the Congregational Church, which lets the organization use the space at no charge. In the current space, Singh said, the organization can prepare about 400 meals per day at most.

“We can keep growing,” Singh said. “The need is there. The only thing that is stopping it is funding. It feels weird to say it, but it’s the truth.”

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....