Maine diocese’s food distribution ministry connects farmers with jobless residents, both hit by COVID-19

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 25, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Maine and Episcopal volunteers have been key players this summer in a solution to two parallel problems brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: Maine farmers’ unsold surplus food, particularly potatoes, and unemployed state residents’ struggles to put food on the table.

With the help of federal COVID-19 relief money, the diocese has served as a sort of intermediary, accepting large shipments of individually boxed agricultural goods from northern Maine and then getting them into the hands of people who need them in the southern part of the state. Church volunteers have now helped distribute thousands of boxes of food, and more are expected if the federal program is extended this fall.

“It’s not a small initiative,” Bishop Thomas Brown told Episcopal News Service. The feeding ministry involves “major systems, companies, agencies, people coming together to do a lot of good.”

It all started with a glut of Maine potatoes, said John Hennessy, the diocese’s director of advocacy and networks.

In the spring, diocesan officials learned from a parishioner that northern farmers were suffering from processors’ reduced demand for potatoes. About 65% of Maine’s potatoes are processed, according to the Portland Press Herald, meaning they end up as french fries, potato chips and other fast-food items sold at restaurants and ballparks. When those businesses closed or cut back due to the coronavirus, the farmers were willing to sell the potatoes at a loss.

Initially, the diocese raised about $3,000 in donations to buy 30,000 pounds of potatoes – “almost a tractor trailer full,” Hennessy said – and Episcopal officials contacted food pantries in the more populated communities in southern Maine to receive them.

Those initial connections established the structure for a more robust feeding ministry through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since April, the program has provided “direct relief to producers who faced price declines and additional marketing costs due to COVID-19,” according to the department, and about $3 billion of that relief is being distributed through its Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

The family-sized food boxes are filled by food producers, who are reimbursed by the federal government. The boxes are distributed by the farmers’ community partners, such as food pantries, faith-based organizations and other charity groups. The Episcopal diocese is among the participating organizations in Maine.

“None of this was costing the diocese any money,” Hennessy said, only the time and effort to coordinate distribution and line up volunteers.

Each food box has contained about 18 pounds of Maine farm products: 5 pounds of raw potatoes and 6 pounds of frozen mashed potatoes, as well as 3 pounds of cheese and a half gallon of milk, Hennessy said. The diocese arranged for delivery locations, such as the parking lots of municipal buildings, and the boxes arrived in refrigerated trucks. The distribution events were advertised locally, and residents interested in receiving the food could pull up and have volunteers place the food boxes in their car trunks.

It has been welcome assistance at a time when Maine’s unemployment rate is at nearly 10% and tens of thousands of workers in the state are receiving jobless benefits.

“Many families in the greater Biddeford area are continuing to face food insecurity and other economic challenges associated with COVID-19,” Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant told News Center Maine after a July distribution in his coastal community, just south of Portland. “Thanks to this program, many more York County residents in need will have a simple way to access fresh, locally grown food.”

Hennessy estimates the diocese has helped distribute about 4,500 such boxes to people since July, and last week, an additional 800 boxes filled with fruits and vegetables were distributed separately.

The diocese’s effort follows other ministries connecting food producers with food consumers in need. St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church in Blue Hill, for example, began this year organizing a bulk lobster buy so parishioners could purchase lobster and support a local lobsterman.

The diocese’s current round of food box distribution has wrapped up, Hennessy said, but he anticipates it will resume in the fall.

The diocese also has money remaining from its fundraiser for the initial potato purchase. It hopes to create a long-term anti-hunger program in the state, when the federal money eventually runs out for good.

“There will always be a need for neighbors to be helping neighbors,” Brown said, “and the more that The Episcopal Church in Maine can be known as a community of followers of Jesus who are committed to helping one another, it seems the more faithful we will be.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at