DOVER-FOXCROFT – The number of customers at the Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard has increased by at least 1,500 since the pandemic began. However, April Sargent, president of the DFAFC board, who is also the supervisor of the Penquis Maine Families program, said there are multiple reasons folks end up needing help. Some people lost jobs or became under-employed during the pandemic. Some are facing housing challenges. Families see kids home for meals more often when schools go remote. The elderly and those with health challenges seek help with groceries in order to save their money for medicine, heating costs and other unavoidable expenses.

“We have folks that worked their entire lives and now they are at the food cupboard, in a spot they never thought they would be at, but knowing that to make ends meet, this is what they have to do,” Sargent said. “It’s a humbling thought to wrap your brain around.” 

In 2021, the DFAFC served 5,249 people, including 2,685 families with 826 children under the age of 18, and 2,568 persons aged 60 and older. 

Making human connections, treating people with dignity and eliminating the stigma around food insecurity are priorities at the food cupboard, she said. While people do need to indicate that their income is below a certain level, proof is no longer required. “We took out the part asking for proof of income because we felt it was punishing – they are already here asking for food and they need help.”

Before the pandemic, patrons of the food cupboard were able to come inside and select their own groceries, which also provided opportunities to chat with the DFAFC staff and volunteers. Now, customers sit in a line of vehicles that can “wrap all the way around to Park Street,” and pre-packed boxes of food are placed in the trunk.

“We had to re-do everything within a week [when the pandemic hit], really learning how to move food and make sure everyone was getting what they needed,” said Sargent. “We saw a huge increase. We have people coming to the food cupboard from all over – Sangerville, Guilford, Dexter, LaGrange and we even have Ripley and Corinna folks that come.

“The other reason we are finding that people come to us is for the human connection. We take the time, even with COVID and social distancing, to make connections with people. Humans need connection. They need to know someone will talk to them, and also where to get other services they need, like where to find a doctor or find out about Mainecare. We became, without meaning to, a hub of information.”

If food cupboard personnel don’t have the answers, they try to find them and to connect customers with resources. “We call it the ‘warm handoff.’ We ask, ‘How can we connect you,’” said Sargent. “People are treated respectfully, and that is so important no matter what your situation is. Everyone is extremely proud and they don’t want to admit they need help, but when they do come in, they see that we are not asking for a ton of information and that we are going to stop and talk with them, and their guard comes down after a while and they start asking for other help. And if one of our regulars doesn’t show up, we reach out and ask, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ Sometimes they are fine; sometimes they’ve been sick and they do need a box, and we tell them ‘We can bring a box to you.’ We’ve had people cry because they just couldn’t believe that was an option for them. If you are in a hard spot, reach out, Send us a message on Facebook. Give us a call. It’s okay to ask for help,” she said. 

Some customers come once and never return, but many become regulars and share their stores. “A year ago, we had one person come in who didn’t know we were here and a friend had given them the information. They had been living off squirrels they were killing in the woods. When they found out we could give them food and hygiene products, they were in tears,” Sargent recalled. “We hear a lot of those stories about how folks are trying to make ends meet.”

Some customers feel a desire to give back, and become volunteers at the food cupboard, Sargent said. The DFAFC has about 30 volunteers, but can always use more.

“If people want to volunteer we always welcome them to, and not just in the traditional way as part of the distribution,” Sargent explained. “It could be going to Shaw’s to pick something up for us. Or, if they work but still want to volunteer, we have volunteer cleaning shifts on Saturdays.”  

Going into year three of the pandemic, there’s less federal COVID relief funding for food cupboards, and the businesses and individuals who have given in the past still give, but maybe can’t give quite as much. 

“The funds are dwindling but the need is far from it – it’s just increasing and we don’t ever want to be in a spot where we have to start turning people away or we can’t give them the food that they need,” said Sargent. “One person shared that because she comes to the food cupboard, she no longer has to choose between food and medication. These are real decisions that people have to make. We are able to supplement so that folks aren’t having to make those drastic decisions.”

According to Debbie Loguercio, who is the lead person for food distribution, a typical week might see a family receiving about 29 pounds of nonperishable food, as well as bags of produce, and packages of fish, chicken, beef, as well as dairy products. When school vacations loom, an extra effort is made to include kid-friendly breakfast and lunch items because some kids only get those meals at school. All told, families receive about 70 pounds of food each week. 

Donating food is helpful, and suggestions for weekly sales items are sometimes pushed out via the DFAFC Facebook page, but the best bang for the buck is to donate cash. 

“It’s easier when we get money, because, let’s say you spent $10…what we can get by shopping at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Hampden, we can make that stretch much farther.” 

There’s less funding, but the work must go on, Sargent said. “Even though we can make the dollars stretch further, we are seeing those increases [due to inflation] also,” she said. “We apply for grants. And we’ve added an option on our Facebook page for people who want to donate to be able to use PayPal or Venmo. Hunger is not going to stop and go away,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s here, but how do we help people?” 

The Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard is located at 76 North Street. They can be reached at 207-717-7529, or follow them on Facebook. Currently, food distributions take place on the first and third Thursday of the month from 10 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 2 p.m.