Food pantry helps fill hunger gap with GIFT

7 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — On a seasonably cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of retired citizens spent part of their day volunteering at the Grace Interfaith Food Table, one of the area’s food pantries, as they do several times a month.  

While the volunteers donated food and packed up bulk shredded cheese, the food pantry’s director, Charlene Buzza, explained how the organization grew out of a collaboration between area churches in response to the increasing regional problem of hunger.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how many people are hungry here in Presque Isle,” said Buzza, a retired medical records manager.

The Grace Interfaith Food Table, or GIFT, was started in 2003 by nuns at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Presque Isle in collaboration with the Grant Memorial United Methodist Church, the Presque Isle Congregational Church and St John’s Episcopal Church.

Today more than 100 people regularly use the food pantry, ranging from single parents, large families and senior citizens, said Buzza, who oversees a team of 30-plus volunteers. Most of the volunteers serve as part of the Retired Seniors Volunteering Program, or RSVP.

For an all volunteer staff, the operation requires a large amount of planning and management to balance the logistics of receiving and disbursing donated food, some of which is on the verge of expiring, such as fresh fruits donated by local grocery stores.

Buzza said about 85 percent of the food GIFT distributes comes from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, while the rest comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food assistance program, Catholic Charities, local farms, grocery stores and food drives. The four churches support the food pantry financially, as well as through food drives, and every summer they hold an area garden tour to raise funds.

GIFT is open four Wednesdays of the month, and people have to call ahead to arrange to receive food for their household, Buzza said.

Although the food pantry does not have a commercial kitchen setup, Buzza said they are making efforts to help people learn how to cook and prepare fresh meals. They share recipes and sometimes host demonstrations on simple cooking methods like crock pot dinners.

“We see a lot of people who don’t know how to cook or don’t have the facilities to cook,” Buzza said.