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Stories from the Road – Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry

On an early summer morning, we headed northwest from the Auburn Distribution Center toward the small mountain town of Bethel, Maine. Located near the New Hampshire line, this town was initially known for logging and farming but is now well-known as an outdoor enthusiast’s haven for mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and skiing. Located downtown is the Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry, where we met with Executive Director Dave Bean as he was preparing for the pantry’s monthly food delivery from Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The pantry was started in conjunction with the district exchange—a place where people could donate clothes or buy used clothes at a reasonable price. The profits from the clothes helped to buy more food for the pantry. The pantry now operates out of the first floor of the local Nazarene church and is open every 1st and 3rd Wednesday from 9 a.m. -2 p.m. for curbside pick-up.

They distribute food to 75-95 households each time they are open and rely on 95 volunteers to help unload food, pack boxes, load cars, and deliver food to those who cannot come to the distribution days. Every vehicle gets one box of shelf-stable food, bags of fresh produce, bread, and frozen protein items. The pantry estimates this amount of food should be enough to last neighbors for two weeks until the next distribution. Those who need more can call the pantry to pick up emergency food. Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry works with several other pantries in surrounding communities to ensure everyone can access nutritious foods.

We arrived right before Good Shepherd Food Bank’s driver, Steve, backed the tractor trailer full of food up to the pantry. Steve was surprised to see fellow Food Bankers on his delivery route for the day and greeted Dave and us with a bright smile. He unloaded the truck using a pallet jack; the pallets were full of shelf-stable food and fresh produce that the pantry ordered for their monthly delivery. He was returning to the distribution center in Auburn as the food pantry’s volunteers were starting to arrive for the day.

Volunteers were community members, and a few of Dave’s family were there to help that day. They started by unwrapping the boxes from the Food Bank and loading them onto the conveyor belt to be stored in the pantry.

Inside the pantry are two different rooms where the food is stored. The first room contains freezers for frozen meats and bread and refrigerators for eggs and dairy. They were able to purchase these freezers with the help of the Food Bank’s Capacity Building Grants. Next to the coolers are shelves for shelf-stable food and stacks of food boxes ready for distribution. Each box has snacks, juice, milk, canned fruits and vegetables, cereal, and more.

The second room is where they keep the fresh produce and hygiene items. Almost all the produce comes from one of Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Mainers Feeding Mainers farm partners, Middle Intervale Farm. This helps to ensure that neighbors get the freshest and most nutritious produce possible, all while supporting a local farm. The pantry mainly receives potatoes but also get other produce too. Any produce that goes unused is placed in the compost bins outside. This compost goes back to Middle Intervale Farm! The pantry also has a program to connect other pantries in Oxford County with local produce from nearby farms. Participating farms include Middle Intervale Farm, Swain’s Farm, Sparrowhawk Orchard, Howe Family Farm, Chapman Brook Farm, and participating pantries include Andover Food Pantry, Woodstock Food Pantry, Progress Center Food Pantry, Old School Food Pantry, Peru Food Pantry, Stevens Memorial Hospital Food Pantry. Once the food is unloaded and put away, the volunteers help prepare the bags of produce and load the conveyor belt for when the first clients come.

On that day, the produce room was filled with fresh onions, potatoes, cucumbers, and summer squash. Dave had volunteers busy storing away the Food Bank order and some sorting through produce. Once the bags were ready to roll, they did just that! Bags were rolled up the conveyor belt and out the door into neighbors’ trunks. Cars continued to go through the line, happy they were leaving with two weeks’ worth of nutritious food for their family.

The pantry utilizes a drive-thru model for food distribution. They believe that this is more equitable in serving their community. Neighbors pull up in their cars to the side of the building, where a volunteer greets them. The volunteer checks the neighbor in on paper and fills out all the intake forms. Once they’re checked in, the neighbor’s car is loaded. Outside on the side of the building are a few carts of extra items. Dave calls these choice carts, filled with items that neighbors can select as extras to add to their food box.

The mission of the Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry is to eliminate food and clothing insecurity in Western Maine by providing clients with nutritious food and easy access to inexpensive clothing.

The Food Pantry is open for drive through service on the first and third Wednesday of each month.

Take a virtual tour of the Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry here.

With our partner agencies spread throughout the entire state, there will likely be help nearby if you need food. If you’re looking for help or interested in donating food or volunteering at your local food pantry, please visit our Food Map to find a pantry near you.

Good Shepherd Food Bank works in partnership with nearly 600 hunger-relief organizations, located from Kittery to Fort Kent, to help distribute food to community members in need. Our network of partner agencies includes food pantries, meal sites, senior centers, school programs, and healthcare facilities.