Food and friendship: How a church in Sanford helps seniors meet their nutritional needs

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SANFORD, Maine – Mary Stewart volunteered one day to help members of Crossroads United Methodist Church provide food to seniors during their monthly distribution there.

“I had so much fun and really felt good,” Stewart said. “I’ve been back every month since then.”

That was about six years ago. There are other volunteers who have helped the church with its distributions even longer. Some have even been helping since Day 1, back in 2013.

“It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” said volunteer Steven Ellis, who has been involved since the beginning.

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Volunteers organize and prepare to hand out food items at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food program in Sanford, Maine, Jan. 13, 2022.
Volunteers organize and prepare to hand out food items at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food program in Sanford, Maine, Jan. 13, 2022.

On the first Thursday after the first Friday of every month, Crossroads hosts two programs on site at 16 Grammar Road: the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program, operated by Wayside Food Programs, of Portland, and the Senior Food Mobile, in partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The church held its most recent distribution on Thursday, Jan. 13, and already has locked down all the other ones in 2022: Feb. 10; March 10; April 7; May 12; June 9; July 14; Aug. 11; Sept. 8; Oct. 13; Nov. 19; and Dec. 8.

The federal program provides senior applicants with nonperishable foods and cheese. The mobile serves all seniors in York County – no applying necessary – and provides them with nonperishable foods and produce.

“It’s really good, nutritious food,” said Marylou Ellis, another faithful volunteer.

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Marsha Plourde leads these volunteers, who range in age from 18 to their 80s, alongside fellow Crossroads member Candy Hagan. Seniors ages 60 and older who could benefit from some food assistance are encouraged to call either Plourde at (207) 247-1210 or Hagan at (207) 324-1493.

Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine driver Steve Smith unloads pallets of food items at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food program in Sanford, Maine, on Jan. 13, 2022.
Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine driver Steve Smith unloads pallets of food items at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food program in Sanford, Maine, on Jan. 13, 2022.

Originally, the two programs were held at the church on two different days, according to Plourde. That changed a few years ago, when, after a brief hiatus during which York County Community Action Corporation took the reins, the church resumed responsibility for the programs under one condition: that the two distributions be held on one day instead.

“It’s worked out really well,” Plourde said.

In 2013, the church began letting the York County Agency on Aging use its parking lot for the food distributions. The agency, which oversaw the efforts, had been holding the distributions at a site in Alfred but needed a new location, according to Plourde. In 2014, Dick and Carol Ogden, who had been running the programs for the agency, retired and handed the operation of the programs to the church.

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Since then, the church has held the distributions every month without fail – in the dead cold of winter, the sweltering heat of summer, in the pouring rain, under the blazing sun, during a pandemic, you name it. During a recent interview at the church, Plourde and the other volunteers could think of only one time that they decided to cancel a distribution due to the weather.

The church has recruited a cross-section of volunteers to enlist in their monthly efforts. Over the years, the church has gotten helping hands from the Master Gardener program at the University of Maine Extension, the cadet academy of the Sanford Police Department, the prison ministry program at the York County Jail in Alfred, and such organizations as Waban.

The food arrives on palettes on the mornings of distributions, and volunteers need to unload them, pack them and distribute them over the course of a few hours.

“It’s labor intensive – most definitely,” volunteer Deb Gullison said.

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Labor intensive, but worth it – and the seniors the volunteers serve are the reason, according to Steven Ellis and others.

“These are great people, and they really need the food,” Ellis said. “I have seen people who are so kind and so gentle and so wonderful. I wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for that. If it was a bunch of hard-nosed trouble makers, I wouldn’t be here.”

Volunteers organize and prepare to hand out food items at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food program in Sanford, Maine, Jan. 13, 2022.
Volunteers organize and prepare to hand out food items at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food program in Sanford, Maine, Jan. 13, 2022.

Senior food insecurity is a complex topic, involving physical, social and psychological symptoms, the Good Shepherd Food Bank stated in a report it released in 2017.

“There are a myriad of causes, and it is difficult to measure,” the organization wrote.

The insecurity involves difficulties with accessing, preparing and eating food, and can be experienced as a result of financial issues, transportation problems, mobility limitations, assorted impairments, and living in isolation, according to the organization.

Locally, seniors who are unable to make it themselves to the monthly distribution can still receive assistance if they alert the volunteers that a proxy will be there to collect the food for them.

For seniors who are able to report to Crossroads on distribution day, Ellis and fellow volunteer Del Door are the first people they meet when they arrive. They’re the ones handling traffic control at the entrances – a crucial task, given the scores, perhaps hundreds, of cars that pass through the programs during a period of just a few hours. The seniors never get out of their cars while they’re at the church; they motor on through, and when their time comes, volunteers open their back doors and place bundles of food in the back seat.

Volunteer Del Door explains the drive-thru process at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food distribution for seniors in Sanford, Maine, on Jan. 13, 2022. The distribution happens once a month.
Volunteer Del Door explains the drive-thru process at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food distribution for seniors in Sanford, Maine, on Jan. 13, 2022. The distribution happens once a month.

It took a short while to get the hang of traffic control, but it was Door who whipped the operation into shape, according to Ellis. When asked if he had ever had experience with traffic control elsewhere, Door is quick with a quip.

“I go to the Fryeburg Fair every year,” he said, referring to the miles of cars that seek parking spaces on and around the popular fairgrounds every autumn.

Once the operation is officially off and running, a car leaves the church premises every three minutes or so, according to Door. For seniors, though, there is some timing involved.

“If you just come in after a hundred cars are here, you’re going to be here at least an hour and a half,” he said.

The distributions tend to start at about 9:30 a.m. According to Plourde, who arrives at the church early on those days, some seniors are lined up in their vehicles as early as 7:30 a.m.

A volunteer for the Crossroads United Methodist Church food distribution program in Sanford, Maine, waves as he directs a flow of cars who show up to pick up items on a cold Thursday morning, Jan. 13, 2022.
A volunteer for the Crossroads United Methodist Church food distribution program in Sanford, Maine, waves as he directs a flow of cars who show up to pick up items on a cold Thursday morning, Jan. 13, 2022.

At first, the volunteers used to serve an average of 305 seniors a month under the federal program. With the opening of other distribution sites in recent years, however, that average is now around 160, according to the volunteers.

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Seniors have to apply in advance to be served by the Community Supplemental Food Program; however, seniors who do not apply but show up at the church are given an application and sent home with a “unit,” or 35 pounds of nonperishable goods.

The volunteers usually pack up to 250 boxes of goods each month for the Senior Food Mobile.

The volunteers may by the ones providing the food, but they’re not the only ones who are giving.

Volunteer Mary Stewart helps stack bags of beets on a chilly morning at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food distribution program for seniors in Sanford, Maine, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.
Volunteer Mary Stewart helps stack bags of beets on a chilly morning at the Crossroads United Methodist Church food distribution program for seniors in Sanford, Maine, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.

With gratitude and generosity, many seniors also have gotten into the spirit of giving and providing assistance. On one exceptionally frigid morning, a few seniors picked up their food, left, and returned with hot cups of coffee for the volunteers. One senior has knitted and gifted mittens. And, of course, in this age of COVID-19, the volunteers have received face masks too.

“They’re all wonderful people,” Steven Ellis said.

Ellis and Door, in particular, get to know them well, given they’re the greeters at the gates. Ellis said he has seen seniors in various degrees of need – ones who are clearly living in their vehicles, for example. And the volunteers notice when faithful clients miss a distribution day, sometimes for heartbreaking reasons, such as they have started living in a nursing home or have passed away.

“You don’t forget these things,” Ellis said.

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Door noted that several of the seniors also are widows and widowers, some of whom ask questions about other needs they may have. Ellis, for example, once helped a woman who wanted to know how to install a generator at her home.

“A lot of questions come up,” Door said.

And a lot of friendships result, according to Door – enough of them that the monthly distributions actually have become a “social hour,” he added.

“I look forward to it,” Door said. “It’s fun.”

Food distribution for seniors

Who? Seniors age 60 and older who could benefit from food assistance.

What? Two programs: the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program operated by Wayside Food Programs of Portland (application required), and the Senior Food Mobile, in partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank (no application required).

When? The first Thursday after the first Friday of every month. In 2022, that's Jan. 13; Feb. 10; March 10; April 7; May 12; June 9; July 14; Aug. 11; Sept. 8; Oct. 13; Nov. 19; and Dec. 8. The distributions tend to start at about 9:30 a.m.

Where? Crossroads United Methodist Church, 16 Grammar Road in Sanford.

How? Call either Marsha Plourde at (207) 247-1210 or Candy Hagan at (207) 324-1493. There's an application for the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program, but no application for the Senior Food Mobile program.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Sanford ME food assistance: Crossroads Church helps seniors meet needs

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