The Tree of Life Food Pantry in Blue Hill is experiencing an uptick in client visits. A 32-percent uptick to be precise, and along with the increase in visits, says manager Rusty Roberts, there seems to be an increased sense of anxiety for those who come through the door.
This past week the pantry served approximately 170 families. That number is significant and typically does not grow that large until the colder months hit, said Roberts. Granted temperatures did dip to freezing levels for a short period of time, but it feels different says Roberts, and she believes this is only the beginning of things to come. In fact, said pantry volunteer and Blue Hill resident Rick Traub, clients line up at the door many hours before they open each Thursday.
Given the protracted economic downturn, the financial squeeze is extending far beyond those who are considered poor by all metrics, including federal poverty standards. It is hitting those considered to be solid middle class too, said Roberts, and because of this, many more people are turning to the pantry for assistance.
The food pantry serves the towns of Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Castine, Orland, Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry.
The increase has caused the nonprofit to seek alternative means to feed its neighbors. In addition to receiving food from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the group purchases items in bulk at discounted rates and then re-packages them for individual distribution. The pantry also gets a significant amount of help from TradeWinds as the company allows them to order items at close to cost.
In order to fully grasp the amount of use the pantry provides, Traub has spent a fair amount of time examining the numbers associated with the food pantry, and what he has found may be surprising to some.
In 2011, there were 8,970 client visits, representing 23,602 family members. In 2012 there have been 7,451 client visits so far this year, a number that is on track to pose a more than 30-percent increase over last year.
In Blue Hill over a one year period ( from September 1 to August 31) 513 adults and children came to the pantry at least one time, with a majority of clients coming regularly. This represents 20 percent of the Blue Hill population. Twenty-seven percent of the population of Sedgwick use pantry services, and other towns such as Brooksville have 6 percent of its population using services; Penobscot has 12 percent and Surry has 15 percent. The towns of Castine, Brooklin and Orland did not use services at all within the past year.
According to Traub, approximately $4,500 a week is spent to feed those who come through the door. Last year the pantry saw 513 visits from families (representing 1,285 individuals), at a total cost of $228,342, or $4,447 per week. Those coming in, said Traub, are representative of the communities as a whole; they are artists, farmers, carpenters and those who do seasonal work, said Traub.
The majority of the money used to cover the cost of food is generated from the Turnstyle, a secondhand clothing store housed beside the pantry. In 2011 more than $133,000 was raised from the sale of clothing. The remainder of funds come from private donations. According to Traub, the Tree of Life does not conduct a formal annual appeal and does not have an endowment of any kind. There are some reserve funds, said Traub, but not many. The pantry does own the building outright that it uses, and all work with the exception of weekly cleaning and general maintenance is done by volunteers.
This coming year, to help offset costs, the pantry will seek a taxpayer-funded appropriation at town meeting from each of the towns in which residents use the services. In the towns of Blue Hill and Surry, a petition will be circulated to ensure it appears on the annual town meeting warrant. The remaining towns will receive letters to the board of selectmen asking for inclusion of a warrant article. The appropriation requests will factor in number of visits and population numbers and will be different for each town.
Petitions are available at the Turnstyle and the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill and outside polling areas on Election Day, November 6.
For those who want to provide support for the Tree of Life there are many ways in which to help, said Traub. People can shop or donate items to the Turnstyle; they can purchase food or donate funds directly to the Tree of Life or they can volunteer at either of the two entities. For Traub, who does the majority of the purchasing for the pantry, cash donations, he said, go further because of the way in which purchases are made, but the organization appreciates any and all help and will gladly take it in any form.