The T-shirts they wear say it all: “Churches united in love.” For 21 years, volunteers from faith communities throughout the Fairfield and Benton area have been coming together to provide food for those who are struggling. Since it opened its doors, the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry has assisted more than 71,000 people from more than 25,000 families.
“If it wasn’t here, a lot of people would go hungry,” says Darla Meader, a Fairfield resident, who says she depends on the pantry.
“There are so many hurting families, so many hungry children, here and everywhere,” says Joyce Perkins, associate pastor of the Fairfield Nazarene Church.
For its ongoing commitment to feeding those who are hungry, the food pantry was awarded this year’s Matthew 25 Award, presented by Catholic Charities Maine to a parish ministry that embraces the principles of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me….”
“Their application really stood out by demonstrating that dollars spent now would have positive repercussions in the community for years to come,” says Michael Smith, program manager for Catholic Charities’ Parish Social Ministry.
“This is truly a blessing,” says Nancy Marcoux, director of the pantry and a member of Corpus Christi Parish, Waterville. “It’s such a rewarding mission to know that we’re feeding people in need.”
The food pantry opened its doors in January 1993 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fairfield. Nancy recalls that a representative from the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP) approached Father Marcel Dumoulin, pastor at the time, about starting a pantry, citing the need in the community. Working through the Fairfield Council of Churches, the pantry was established, with each participating congregation represented on the board of directors. Immaculate Heart of Mary Church was chosen as the original location because there was a small pantry already there.
During its first year, the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry served 998 people. In 2013, that number topped 4000.
“There are so, so many stories in this pantry,” says Nancy, “people who have no food at all.”
“Some of the stories you hear are really unbelievable,” says Martha Hall, a volunteer for approximately 15 years.
“We have a lot of new people every time we open,” says Claudette Couture, who has volunteered for nearly 20 years.
The food pantry, which moved to the Fairfield First Baptist Church in 2011, operates two Thursdays each month. Each family is allowed to come once a month for food, which includes bread, frozen meat and chicken, canned goods, and produce, as well as some extras when available.
The pantry purchases the majority of its food from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Auburn, with area businesses such as Hannaford, Country Kitchen, and Freihofer’s Bakery donating items as well. Monetary contributions come from the area towns, from businesses, from charitable and fraternal organizations, and from individuals.
“There are so many individual people who donate every month – five dollars here, 10 dollars there, 20 dollars,” says Nancy.
“Pennies from heaven, I tell you,” says Claudette.
“We never run out of food, never,” adds Nancy.
The pantry is staffed by approximately 60 volunteers, who, together, contribute 350-400 hours of their time each month.
“It’s a wonderful group of people. Everyone gets involved. Everyone comes in, and they know what to do,” says Claudette. “It runs like clockwork; it really does.”
The clock starts around 7:30 in the morning when the first volunteers come in to pack tote bags to be delivered to the homes of those unable to travel. Clients picking up food arrive around 12:30 p.m. and go through a screening process. Volunteers first pause to pray together, then form an assembly line, preparing boxes or bags of food, depending on the size of the family being served. Other volunteers, which often include members of the Knights of Columbus, help people carry food to their vehicles. Still others make home deliveries or drive to pick up donated or purchased food.
“The volunteers here are just so great. I can’t say enough,” says Nancy.
Many of those helping at the pantry have been doing so for a decade or more. Some, like 81-year-old Arleen Smith, have been there since the year it opened.
“It’s part of my life,” she says.
Louise O’Brien started volunteering after moving from Massachusetts 12 years ago.
“I love every minute of it. I wouldn’t be in Maine if it wasn’t for these people. These are great friends,” she says. “When you’re retired, and you’re on your own all day long, you need to have something to do. And this is the best thing that happened to me."
Susan Spaulding, who has been volunteering for about four years, says she originally came to the pantry to get food.
“There was a time I didn’t have anything, and it was a godsend. Everything is God-related. Everything is given to you that way,” she says.
Claudette says she started volunteering when Nancy asked for her help one Saturday afternoon back in 1994.
“I got hooked. I love helping people,” she says. “We’re here because we want to be, not because we have to be. It was a calling. I’m sure of it.”
With the demand remaining high and their current space quite cramped, the food pantry is looking to move into a new, permanent home. KVCAP donated an empty building behind the Fairfield Town Hall to the pantry, but the building needed extensive renovations. That has included removing the third floor and putting on a slanted roof. Nancy says the pantry has raised approximately $136,000 but still needs another $30,000 to complete the work.
The five-thousand dollars that comes with the Catholic Charities’ Matthew 25 award will be used for a new freezer and refrigerator.
Nancy says every donation, no matter how small, is appreciated.
“We have our big donors, but we also have our little donors. A lot of our volunteers have donated because they know how important it is. The little donors do it from the bottom of their hearts because they don’t really have the money to give, but they still do,” says Nancy. “Everyone has been so generous.”
Claudette says you can’t put a price on the work they’re doing.
“People get the misconception that it is just a handout; it isn’t. There are people who are very needy,” she says. “We’re doing God’s work, what can you say.”