2013-03-01 / Front Page

Food pantry in need of home

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Each Thursday for more than a decade, the tables in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church in South Portland are stacked with bread, eggs, canned soup, peanut butter and jelly, cereal and more to feed families in need.

The South Portland Food Cupboard has made the basement of the Main Street church its home since 2001. This year, with the possible closure of St. John the Evangelist looming, director Sybil Riemensnider is looking to move the food cupboard to a new home.

The food cupboard’s current space is a 4,000-square-foot shared area that includes two rooms. In the large common area, the food is laid out on folding tables and families enjoy muffins and coffee while they pick up their groceries. The smaller storage room is lined with shelves of nonperishable goods, refrigerators for eggs, milk and meat, and a walk-in freezer.

Each Thursday, members of the food cupboard’s volunteer staff organize all the food and help an average of 60 to 70 people pick up groceries.

“It’s all volunteer and it always has been,” Riemensnider said. “We have over 50 volunteers, they’re extremely talented and very faithful. We know it could be us tomorrow.”

Riemensnider said she would like to find a new venue of a similar size, but with more space for storage. She hopes to make the move by the summer, when church parishioners have discussed a possible closure. Monsignor Michael Henchal, the pastor at St. John the Evangelist, said parishioners discussed closure at a meeting last month, but “no decision has been made.”

“They don’t really have the numbers to carry out a lot of the functions, so there is a possibility of eventually stopping services there,” Henchal said.

Henchal said the church’s struggles began nearly 20 years ago, when the congregation at St. John the Evangelist was growing and Saint Maximillian Kolbe opened in Scarborough to accommodate the population.

“They created a brand new parish, which is now one of the largest in the state of Maine, but that cut off all the potential for growth,” Henchal said.

Whatever the church’s outcome, Riemensnider said a move will benefit the food cupboard in some ways. The food cupboard currently shares the basement of the church with other groups, which means Riemensnider and the other volunteers have to set up and break down the room each week. A permanent home would mean a permanent set-up that wouldn’t have to be in constant flux.

However, the volunteers have used the basement space in the church for the last 12 years without ever making rent or utility payments to St. John the Evangelist. That has allowed the food cupboard to focus more than 80 percent of its expenses on groceries and produce. Riemensider said she doesn’t expect a similar arrangement at the next location, but she’s not worried about the effect the new costs will have on the organization.

“It won’t change services. It will require us to probably have someone do more fundraisers. Right now well supported by businesses and the city, the banks, everyone who knows us,” Riemensnider said.

The food cupboard has grown to a well-established institution in the community from humble beginnings in 1997. Riemensnider the service started as a service of the Holy Cross Church in a small room with no refrigeration. Less than 100 families came in those first few months, but over time use of the food cupboard steadily grew. In 2001 the food cupboard split from the church as an independent, non-profit organization and moved to its current location.

Last year, Riemensnider said the food cupboard served nearly 8,000 individuals, including elderly residents, individuals who had recently lost their jobs, and many young families. She said 35 percent of the people helped by the food cupboard were 18 years old or younger. Riemensnider estimated the monetary value of the donated food at $288,827 last year.

“Some people come in, and they’re so embarrassed. We try to make them feel comfortable. This is what we’re here for,” Riemensnider said.

The majority of the food cupboard’s clients, 63 percent, are South Portland residents. Riemensnider isn’t sure exactly where the food cupboard will move, but she was adamant it will stay in South Portland, and will continue to be there for residents who have fallen on hard times.

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