by Kirsten Walker
The COVID-19 pandemic has both exposed and deepened inequities across the state and nation. Anyone who has gone to the grocery store in the last eight weeks has seen, firsthand, the fragility of our food system. This fragility has long been of concern to people in food justice work, and to those who struggle themselves with food insecurity. The disruption to the food supply has added significant challenges to the emergency food system. This is evident to organizations that provide food resources to the many diverse communities in Lewiston-Auburn – it is harder than ever to provide culturally and ethnically preferred foods.
The St. Mary’s Nutrition Center’s food pantry, community gardens, and fresh food access points are part of a network of important food resources in Lewiston-Auburn. As the pandemic arrived, the Nutrition Center reached out to partners early on, and then kicked off a collaborative effort to meet the crisis. We were fortunate to have the Cooperative Development Institute offer to help with organizing. Then the Good Food Council joined that coordinating effort, as well, to form the L-A Emergency Food Response group, which meets weekly to support collaborative efforts, coordinate rapid responses, and foster ongoing learning to strengthen our food system in the long term.
The Nutrition Center quickly made substantial changes in the way the Food Pantry operates, prioritizing low-barrier access to food and the health and safety of the wider community, volunteers, and staff. But we were concerned that these changes would impact food choice, an important component of food security. Nutrition Center staff and partners in the New Mainer community were worried about access to culturally preferred foods, especially with Ramadan beginning in late April. Because of the need for social distancing, many traditional New Mainer support networks were unable to fill long-held roles, such as providing Iftar meals. The Immigrant Resource Center of Maine and other partners continued to advocate for remaining true to our shared values of equity, accessibility, and inclusion, despite this unprecedented crisis.
A common concern expressed was the need for culturally preferred staple items, such as basmati rice, flour, dry beans, cooking oil, pasta, and masa corn flour for fufu. Together we explored options for bulk purchasing and developing alternative supply chains for food providers. One result was a collaboration between the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine and the Nutrition Center to distribute a “staples goods” bag for the month of May, in addition to the weekly Food Pantry food bags. We were able to distribute over 750 of these bags, as of May 19. Much of this food has been sourced through the independent African-owned stores in Lewiston with the intention of supporting small businesses during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, St. Mary’s Food Pantry had supplied food support to 2,470 unique households since February 2019. In the last two months, over 280 households visited our on-site distribution for the first time. We are also providing weekly food deliveries, and the demand grows by the week. On May 20, we delivered food to 230 households.
Much of the support for this “staples goods bag” distribution was secured by the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine. Funding has been provided in part by the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, Good Shepherd Food Bank, John T. Gorman Foundation, and United Way, and also by individual donors and local businesses. The bags have been very well received, especially since finding staples like 5-lb. bags of flour has been difficult. People have been sharing news of this resource with their neighbors, so that we are seeing many new faces at the Food Pantry. For Ramadan we also purchased 50-lb. bags of dates to distribute. We plan to work with other organizations to expand the bulk distribution network.
Community organizations are responding with rapid action to what we are hearing from our neighbors. More good work is happening than can be shared here, but a few examples include:
• The Somali Bantu Community Association directly sourced two bulls and arranged for Halal meat distribution to over 140 households, in addition to cooking greens and other produce. SBCA is focusing on seedling production and growing food this summer.
• The Root Cellar Food Pantry is open five days per week and serving as a downtown school meal distribution site. Each week, school districts are distributing 1,000 meals to students, along with educational worksheets (called “brain food”). Over 10,000 worksheets have been returned to the schools.
• New Mainer Public Health Initiative has been making wellness and safety calls, and has spoken with over 350 families. They are also coordinating the LA New Mainers Emergency Task Force (a collaboration of community based organizations working together to support access to rental relief, unemployment insurance applications, and other important and timely resources). They have organized a quick distribution of vegetables and beans as well as “Iftar Operation” – getting hot meals delivered to elderly and disabled who were fasting for Ramadan.
• Trinity Jubilee Center had distributed over 8,000 ready-to-eat meals by May 27.
The stress of food insecurity is compounded by other challenges that COVID-19 presents to New Mainers, including lost wages or jobs, inability to make rent, lack of childcare, and language barriers that make staying informed a challenge. By working together, we hope to continue to be a reliable and trusted source of food, providing some stability in these uncertain times. We also recognize that community food organizations are one of the many “front lines” in the pandemic. We are in a unique position to listen to the needs and concerns of people coming to us for food and to share information. Collectively, we can identify gaps and meet the evolving needs of the diverse communities in Lewiston-Auburn.
Kirsten Walter is the director of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston
Homepage photo: Helena Colai (second from left), Fiston Mubalama Lowatiwiya (third from right), and Randy Hord (far right) with volunteers of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston (taken prior to the COVID-19 crisis).