With a rising number of Waldo County residents without reliable access to food, a new market-style food pantry opened last week that aims to address the need by providing access to a range of free locally sourced produce and shelf stable items.
The addition of Kindness Community Market brings the number of food pantries and soup kitchens in the midcoast county to 18. According to 2020 data from Feeding America, Waldo County had a higher percentage of residents who were food insecure — 11.2 percent — than the state average of 10.4 percent. The need, experts say, has only grown since then.
The Kindness Community Market started out as a dream shared by the heads of the Belfast Soup Kitchen and the Kindness Program in Searsport three years ago. The two organizations merged in October and Belfast Soup Kitchen Executive Director Cherie Merrill said the county’s increasing food insecurity, or the lack of access to adequate and nutritional meals, meant they needed to make that dream a reality fast.
“The goal was to provide greater access for our community,” Merrill said.
Waldo Community Action Partners found in a 2021 study that nearly 1 in 5 people in the county are food insecure. Merrill said economic issues like high food prices due to inflation, combined with the end of federal emergency SNAP benefits and other pandemic era relief, have led to an increase in the number of people seeking food aid.
The organization anticipated around 100 families accessing the market per week, but they have already provided food to 160 households since opening Monday, Merrill said. Meanwhile, the soup kitchen has served more meals as well — about 400 per day now, compared with 50 to 75 per day in mid-2020, Merrill said.
The community market expands the small food pantry that was previously in the soup kitchen’s dining area. It also changes its feel. The new space is set up to feel like a grocery store though everything is free.
“Belfast Soup Kitchen has worked very hard to reduce stigma and become more about community than just food, and making people feel welcome,” Merrill said.
A major barrier for local food access organizations is finding ways to connect the people who need food to the county’s robust food aid infrastructure, said Mattie Bamman, communications coordinator for the Waldo County Bounty, a food distributor formed in response to the pandemic.
“There are people out there that we just don’t know about who are food insecure and need support, and the question is how to access them,” Bamman said.
Bamman said housing insecurity, transportation and stigma all play important roles in the county’s food accessibility.
Waldo County Bounty’s most recent data shows food pantries in the county serve over 2,600 people monthly, around 7 percent of Waldo County’s 39,607 residents counted in the 2020 Census.
Government aid during the pandemic actually reduced the number of people going to some soup kitchens and food pantries, Bamman said, but with those benefits gone, demand is increasing.
“Now it’s more just people on the ground in Waldo County who are collectively trying to deal with food insecurity,” Bamman said. “We kind of see it as our responsibility.”