Monday, January 21st, 2019

Wayside Food Program provides for those in need

Posted on February 01, 2016 in Arts & Culture
By USM Free Press

Wayside Website
Wayside Website

By Dora Thompson

Last Thursday night in Portland, restaurants were abuzz as usual. Oysters were slurped by candlelight, steaks washed down with red wine, and baked stuffed lobsters sat proudly on well-garnished plates. Down in the Deering Community Church basement, amongst a clutter of foldable tables, a feast was also being served.  

“Spaghetti with meat sauce, soup, salad. For dessert: blueberry cake,” The menu read, written up on a whiteboard. The night was chilly and guests filed in, stamping the snow off their boots.

“How’s your granddaughter, Carolyn?” someone in a hairnet and apron yells from inside the kitchen. A group of older women huddled around the tea and coffee station discuss the warm winter we’ve been having.

The meal was put on by Wayside Food Programs, an organization that works to provide food for those in need in the Portland area. They take several creative approaches to offer an alternative to the tradition soup kitchen model. Thursday’s dinner was one of their thirteen weekly community meals, which are scattered throughout the city. Wayside, which operates in a large building off of Walton Street, used to own the Preble Street soup kitchen.

“The soup kitchen was no longer a safe space to bring your children,” said Mary Zwolinski, Wayside’s Executive Director. “This is a way to decentralize that model.”

The community meals offer free meals to people all over the area, with no lines and more food. They also give children, senior citizens and women a friendlier space to congregate. One fantastic advantage: no one has to wait in line for food anymore.

The community meal at the Deering Community Church was mostly elderly people, with an occasional grandkid running around the tables. Prayer requests were taken at the beginning of the meal, and several guests raised their hands with problems they’d like the group to pray for.

“It’s the same crowd every week,” observed Julie Harrison, the Community Meals manager. “So over time the guests make friendships, support each other, have conversations about things that are bothering them.”

Community is a big factor at the meals. People don’t just show up because they are hungry. Some are looking for a sense of belonging. As of 2013, 41% of Wayside’s Food Programs’ guests were seniors. Many of the guests were those who lived alone.

One guest who chose to not disclose their name said, “for some of these people, this is the only human contact that they have all day. And that can make the difference between a life and no life at all.”  If some of the seniors don’t come to a few meals in a row, the volunteers know to check on them.

After the kitchen volunteers serve the meal, the basement comes abuzz with talk.

“It’s all really family oriented,” mused another guest who chose not to disclose his name. “Last week we had Italian fish stew. I’ve never heard of that.”

Portland makes claims to be a “Foodie” city, but can it really be when so many of its residents are starving? The irony seems to be rich when Huffington Post declares Portland to be one of “The 13 Greatest Food Towns in America,” while many people in the city don’t even have consistent access to meals.

Luckily, the Wayside Food Programs is expanding everyday. In 2013, Wayside had provided over 26,000 free community meals. Still, many stereotypes are perpetuated about people who go to these free meals. Zwolinski assures that these beliefs are not true. She explained that some people who go and eat the free meals have a house and sometimes even a car.

“Some people just can’t spare the extra money that week,” she said. “A lot of them have kids. It’s important to ask yourself if you really know what’s going on in their lives. I think there’s a lot of judging that goes on, and a lot of misconceptions.”

But being hungry in Portland is certainly not caused by a food shortage. Wayside uses the concept of food rescue to retrieve the large amounts of food that would otherwise be thrown out by large corporations. Hannaford, Shaws and Whole Foods are among some of the top donors. Any food that doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing enough, or comes in a box with a slight dent in it will be donated to the Wayside Food Programs.

Most packaged food is labeled with expiration dates that are far earlier than when the foods actually expire. The majority that stay edible long after their sell-by dates are shipped to the Wayside warehouse, where they will be inspected and sorted. From there, they distribute it to food pantries, or use it to make their community dinners. Quality of food is one of their top priorities.

What they don’t use, Wayside Food Programs composts or donates to local pig farmers. As a company, they produce zero waste. This fact would thrill Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a figure head when it come to speaking out about about food waste. Pingree’s Food Recovery Act will encourage businesses to donate food to places like Wayside, as well as reforming sell-by dates.

“Forty percent of all food produced in the United States each year is wasted,” Pingree said.  “The Food Recovery Act takes a comprehensive approach to reducing the amount of food that ends up in landfills and at the same time reducing the number of Americans who have a hard time putting food on the table.”

Wayside Food Programs offer many other services too. They provide mobile food banks, which deliver nonperishable food to Portland housing sites for people that might not have transportation.The bags are numbered, to help with the frequent language barrier between the truck drivers and the recipients. The packages provide enough food for the individual families for a week at a time.

In the summers, Wayside tends a community garden. The organization hosts meals especially for children, which for many of them is their last meal of the day. At their free dinners, Wayside sometimes also offers free blood pressure testing, nutrition classes and smoking prevention classes. Zwolinski said that each meal has a different community.

“At some meals, people sing karaoke,” she said.

Harrison mentioned that one of her favorite meals is at the Salvation Army for seniors citizens. The volunteers are mostly African immigrants, trying to practice their English and gain connections. She explained that it was so rewarding to watch the volunteers befriend the Maine elderly, despite the language barrier.  

“These meals are kept up by extremely hard working volunteers,” said Harrison. Wayside has over 1,000 volunteers that cook meals, organize pantry items, tend community gardens and more. “They are like a team.”

This was definitely evident at the Deering Community Church, where the volunteers and guests clearly had known each other for a while.

“I know which ones like their milk,” laughed Peggy Drake, whose husband is the pastor of the church upstairs. She volunteers at this meal frequently. “It’s very rewarding,” she said.

Drake’s fondest memories are of a woman named Fran who still attends the meals. When she first met Fran she went to remove her place setting and Fran slapped her hand. Ever since then, Drake has known not to touch Fran’s plate until she was ready. Drake even jokingly put “caution” tape around her place setting.

As the Thursday night dinner at the church winds down, people sip coffee, say their goodbyes and their see-you-next-weeks. A coat rack is filled with hand-me-down winter coats that people can use. There is a table full of bread and rolls down the hall the invites folks to “take what they need.”

“It’s a good place to come to if you’re feeling sorry for yourself,” said an anonymous guest. “It reminds you that someone else has had a worse day than you.”

And that’s more than you can get from a stuffed lobster.


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