ROCKLAND— On a rainy, dreary fall day in October, a table had been set out behind the Rockland’s South School (RSU 13) on 30 Broadway with boxes of garden vegetables, grocery store bagged lettuce, Maine-picked apples carrots and other fresh offerings. A simple sign said: “Free Farmer’s Market.” There was no waiting line, no eligibility requirements, no quota. Anyone could pick up a plastic bag and fill it with what he or she needed. It was simply a gesture of goodwill on the part of a group called PFT (Parents, Teachers & Friends) and the administration of South School.
On the first Tuesday of each month, Brenda Thomas, the chair person for the South School PTF, goes to pick up a delivery of donated food.
The Area Interfaith Outreach Food Pantry and the Backpack Program, run by Coordinator Sherry Cobb, have organized this monthly food pick up from Good Shepherd Food Bank in Warren.
By 10:30 a.m. Thomas and other volunteers have tables set up under the trees at South School filled with boxes of fresh food. They stick around for the first big rush of people, while people go “shopping,” then leave the tables to work behind the scenes by delivering bags or boxes to a short list of people who don't have transportation to get to the Farmer's Market.
“This method came out of some trial and error,” said Thomas, who first started working with this “Produce Program” since March, 2018. “The Produce Program is intended to supplement the weekly Backpack Program that provides shelf-stable foods for food-insecure families. Oftentimes, the bag of food kids take home in their backpacks on Friday is the only food they have until they return to school for breakfast and lunches during the school week.”
The Free Farmer’s Market is another way to make sure families get the food they need.
“The first few times we tried this, I was filling plastic bags with equal amounts of items from the boxes and sending the bags home with the kids on the buses,” said Thomas. “But, then we got the feedback that many of the kids weren’t taking them home, just leaving them on the bus and the bus drivers were having to deal with all of this discarded food on the floor.”
Thomas and the South School administrators brainstormed a “Grab ‘N Go Farmer’s Market” concept going forward. “Letting people choose what they wanted not only saved us the time of having to put all of the food in equal amounts in bags, but it also allowed people to choose what they want and not waste what they didn’t want,” she said.
After a few times standing at the tables while people drove up and came through, Thomas further noticed that the volunteers’ presence was a bit of a hindrance.
“Even when you’re standing there and telling them, ‘Take as much as you want’ we realized people hesitated to take too much because they felt like they were being watched.”
So after setting up the tables, Thomas and the volunteers took off.
Even that innovation raised some questions.
“People would ask me, ‘is there a limit on what I can take? I have a sister who’s at work today, but could use some food,’” she recalled. “And, we want the stigma of taking home food removed. It’s not need-based. You don’t owe anything. And I told the woman, ‘If your sister needs something, take it for her. I’d rather see people go home with the food than have it not be used.”
The Free Farmer’s Market generally goes from 11 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. Many parents who are coming by to pick up their kids will also swing by and pick up a bag.
On October 2, by the time Thomas came back at the end of the day, she said, “We put out 1,126 pounds of food and when I got back we had maybe 13 limes, a half a box of apples and a half a box of tomatoes.”
And that was a productive day.
The next Free Farmer’s Market giveaway will be Tuesday, November 6.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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