ROCKLAND – Brenda Thomas likes to give away food. So much so, she’s turned a program to help feed school children into a monthly event that distributes more than 2,000 pounds of food to anyone.
The event takes place at Rockland’s Flanagan Center the first Tuesday of every month from noon to 3 p.m., or until the food supplies are depleted. On April 2, the group managing the program gave away 2,400-pounds of food, mostly fruit and vegetables.
“It grew out of a program to ensure that students from Rockland’s South School had food to take home for the weekend,” said Thomas. “We decided to expand and include fresh vegetables, but the results were less than encouraging.”
Thomas said it was a grab-and-go program.
“Students on the way home, out the door, would grab a bag of fresh produce to take home with them,” she said. “It didn’t work so well. Once students were on the bus, they didn’t want to take the food home, they wanted to use it as projectiles. The bus drivers complained to the principal the next day and said do not do this again.”
The program has been in place since 2018. Thomas is a member of the South School Parent Teachers and Friends organization.
Thomas said the program had to evolve.
“Working with Justin Bennett, the principal of the school, and in many other conversations, it was decided to just put the food out and let people take it,” she said. “It had to be in the hands of parents to eliminate the tendency of kids to use it for play.”
It was decided to give away the produce at school dismissal.
“We put it all outside on tables,” she said. “That way, when parents came to pick up their kids, they could choose from whatever food they needed. The problem with that turned out to be every child does not get picked up and every parent does not have a car to do that. How do you get food into those homes?”
Thomas said, in addition, they were battling freezing temperatures, rain and snow.
“For the last two months we’ve been at the Flanagan Center,” she said. “I approached Benjamin Blake about using that space. He didn’t hesitate a second and said, ‘sure let’s try it.’”
The program uses the gaming room at the center because it has a large door and facilitates the delivery of food.
The first month saw 750-pounds of food. That increased to 1,000, then 1,300 and 2,000 pounds. This month, they took delivery of 2,400-pounds.
Thomas said the food comes from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Waterville and as their volunteer base has increased they are able to take in more and more food.
“At first it was just me moving all that food around,” she said. “We never know what we are going to get. We usually have lots of apples because they are easy to transport and last. We get potatoes, onions, beets, cabbage and carrots. Sometimes we have bagged food, bags of green beans, kale and garlic. This month, I hear we’re getting melons and oranges.”
The giveaway is not need-based. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come and take some food.
What happens if there is food left over?
“We are meeting with different organizations in our area that are tackling the child hunger and food insecurity problem,” said Thomas. “We are discussing creating a food hub amongst the organizations to keep the food resources circulating around.”
Thomas said if it is food that doesn’t keep well she can take to the soup kitchens or to the Area Inter Faith Organization for distribution.
Thomas said hours of operation at the center have been an issue.
“The 20 or so volunteers arrive at 10 a.m. and we start setting up,” she said. “We advertise noon to three, but we’ve never made it to 3 p.m. Our shipment of 2,000-pounds was gone in about 45 minutes. I feel bad for the people who show up after the food is all gone, but as I said, it’s an evolving program and we’re working on it.”
Thomas said people work and can’t get there as well.
“If someone emails me at email@example.com, she said, we can prepare them a portion and leave it at the desk if they can make it there later in the day. And if they can’t leave their home for some reason we can have it delivered to their home.”
Thomas said there are bonus items, as well.
“These are items that have been donated to AIO that they are not distributing or they have so much of it they are looking for other ways to distribute it,” she said. “We have boxes and boxes of cereals, cases of tomato sauce, and boxes of sunglasses and makeup mirrors. We set up a bonus table and those items are free.”
Thomas said the program is working well.
“We just had a child hunger meeting last Thursday,” she said. “We talked about this is working so well in such a short period of time, maybe other food pantries in our area can do it as well.”
Thomas said that to her knowledge, no other town or city has a program like this.