Volunteers Stephen Wiggins, left and Ethan Hanks help out at the Southern Aroostook Food Pantry in Houlton in 2020. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The Southern Aroostook Food Pantry may be forced to close because it no longer has access to food donated by Hannaford, said Mary Beth Foley, who heads the Houlton-based facility.

“It will put a lot of people in turmoil,” said Debra Hopewell, who has been bringing boxes of food from the pantry to area families without transportation for the past several years.

The Southern Aroostook Food Pantry has served more than 400 families twice a month and has worked with Hannaford for 16 years. Foley is deeply concerned for the families. She worries that the remaining area food banks won’t be able to handle the overflow if the pantry closes. The facility is trying to continue feeding the area’s families with their remaining items, she said.

On Valentine’s Day, Hannaford called Foley to let her know that there was a change in Hannaford policy and the Southern Aroostook Food Pantry would no longer directly receive monthly trailer loads, 26 pallets at a time, of food products, said Caitlin Cortelyou, external communications manager for Hannaford Supermarkets.

“A formal notice was mailed to the pantry on the same day. Our records indicate that the pantry’s final pickup occurred in November 2022,” Cortelyou said, adding that Hannaford now works with the Feeding America network. In Maine, that is the Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Since Hannaford changed its distribution policy, Foley has tried to work with Good Shepherd to become a partner in the Feeding America network to no avail.

Good Shepherd is working with several food banks affected by the Hannaford change and were evaluating each community’s needs, said Sarah Fuentes, community resource representative for Good Shepherd.

The Houlton area has a variety of accessible services and hours to support neighbors in need, and because of that Good Shepherd will not be able to partner with the Southern Aroostook Food Pantry, Fuentes told Foley.  

The impact of a potential hunger-relief organization closure is not taken lightly, said Jessica Donahue, director of marketing and communications at Good Shepherd Food Bank.

“Southern Aroostook Food Pantry has been a lifeline for many individuals and families in the region. However, I want to assure you that Houlton is fortunate to have not just one, but three other food pantries in the area that have demonstrated their unwavering dedication to alleviating hunger,” she said.

The food pantry can appeal the decision, according to Donahue. It would have to meet all the contractual obligations and Good Shepherd’s food safety requirements.

In the meantime, if the Southern Aroostook Food Pantry closes, Good Shepherd commits to working with their partners in Houlton to bridge any gaps, Donahue said.

“In the face of adversity, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that no one in the community goes hungry,” she said.  

Nonetheless, Foley and others who have received the food pantry’s assistance believe area families will have to go without food and be forced to make difficult decisions between paying for medicines, heat or food.

Catholic Charities Program Director of Hunger Relief Services Dixie Shaw disagrees with Foley.

“There are much more served [in Houlton] than the rest of The County,” she said, listing the area’s food banks. “Four to six pallets go out every month and if they run out we can give them more.”

The Southern Aroostook Food Pantry has no paid staff and has fed area families for 17 years. Foley and co-founder, the late Ted Ivey, originally began distributing USDA foods like peanut butter, macaroni and cheese and canned fruits, Foley said. But with Ivey’s dedication, the pantry grew, adding donations from McCain’s, B&M Beans, local bakeries and eventually Hannaford.

For nearly 16 years, the Southern Aroostook Food Pantry contracted with a local trucker to pick up truckloads of food and other products from the Hannaford recovery distribution center, Foley said.

Mainers from Mars Hill to Weston to Macwahoc Plantation come twice a month on Thursday and Friday and are given two banana boxes filled with cereals, soups, canned vegetables, fruits, meats and even pet foods to last almost two weeks, she said.

Good Shepherd’s Fuentes suggested Foley attempt to work with one of its Houlton food pantries, including St. Mary’s Church, the Salvation Army or Adopt-a-Block in Houlton, Foley said.

“That’s not going to happen,” said Shaw, who declined to elaborate why the local pantries would not partner with Southern Aroostook Food Pantry.

Shaw did say that Feeding America has strict guidelines.

Nonetheless, Foley has repeatedly contacted Good Shepherd to try to work with them. She worries about the families she has served for so many years, who say the other food banks are more difficult to work with.

Volunteer Hopewell agreed. Too many people don’t have vehicles and can’t get out, and the other pantries’ hours are not convenient, she said.

“This can help people from going hungry,” Foley said. “If I can’t get them to work with me, I will have to close. There is a huge need here. I don’t think the other locations will be able to handle the overflow.”

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...