People Feeding People
Photography by the cooks of Maine Meal Assistance
Facebook group taps local cooks to fill the need
Facebook, love it or hate it, does indeed connect people who wouldn’t otherwise know each other. Many times, those connections make an impact.
Kristen Harris, of Scarborough, and Randy Olsen, of Westbrook, met on the social media platform last spring as members of the Maine Coronavirus Community Assistance Facebook page. Established at the outbreak of the pandemic, this page now has over 20,000 followers. Mainers requiring assistance—help with a fuel bill, a package of diapers, or a bag of groceries—post their specific need on the page, and fellow Mainers step up to fill it if they are able to help.
Harris and Olsen recognized a pattern of food requests. Maine has long had a hunger problem. Good Shepherd Food Bank, the largest organization addressing food insecurity issues in Maine, estimates that 175,000 Mainers were at risk for hunger prior to the pandemic. That number has climbed to over 215,000, includes 60,000 children, and represents 16% of the overall population.
Back in April, Harris and Olsen began to help address the hunger problem by working with a core group of 12 cooks, many of them chefs whose restaurants were shuttered due to pandemic restrictions, to produce home-cooked meals. Harris and Olsen, who both traverse Maine for work as a sales manager for Midwestern Pet Foods and a newspaper and magazine delivery contractor, respectively, shuttled the meals to wherever they needed to go. In September, they established a second Facebook page, called Maine Meal Assistance, to make a bigger impact on the state’s food insecurity issues.
Chef and food writer Kathy Gunst shares the load of cooking weekly for a group of 40 people living in York County. Each cook has control over their own menu. “I tend to cook comfort food, nothing too exotic. Trying to appeal to families with young children as well as seniors,” says Gunst. She’s made spaghetti and meatballs, minestrone soup with garlic bread and a salad, macaroni and cheese, and maple glazed ham with sautéed broccoli.
She has little contact with the eaters of her food other than an occasional photo. “To see a photo of a child smiling from ear to ear, about to dig into spaghetti and meatballs, fills me with joy and hope,” says Gunst.
The roster of cooks has ballooned to 150, and together they make over 350 meals weekly. Ready-to-eat meals, frozen meals, and sometimes pantry goods are delivered to homes or neutral meeting points from Augusta to Berwick by a growing number of drivers. Much of the food is procured by the cooks themselves, but Harris and Olsen also work with grocery stores and restaurants who donate food to be cooked and delivered.
Harris says the organization, which is working to acquire nonprofit tax status, has received meal requests from residents in almost every Maine county and works weekly to bring more cooks and drivers online to help fill the growing need. If you’d like to help, visit the Maine Meal Assistance Facebook page and you can download a form that will start the process of becoming a cook or a driver. If you avoid the social media platform on principle, email email@example.com to make contact.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.