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Stories from the Road – AIO Food and Energy Assistance

On a brisk winter morning, we headed northeast from the Auburn Distribution Center to the coast of Maine to visit AIO Food and Energy Assistance in Rockland. As one of our nearly 600 hunger-relief partners, AIO, was established in 1990 as a convenient place where people could go for nourishing food or energy assistance in Knox County.

Today, AIO is still addressing food and energy insecurity, however, in a new building with a fresh look that allows them to serve the community in a dignified way. As Executive Director Joe Ryan says, “More dignity, more space, more passion.” AIO’s goal with their new space was to create a better overall experience for neighbors experiencing hunger. “When you first walk in now, the space is bright and cheery. It’s a comfortable space filled with friends and, most importantly, a safe space for everyone.”

When we visited AIO, we arrived just in time to meet Good Shepherd Food Bank’s delivery truck driver, coming straight from our distribution center in Auburn. Volunteers were ready to sort through the order and restock AIO’s market shelves. Thursdays are a restock day because the pantry is not open to neighbors. The pantry, or Market, is open on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, with extended hours to meet the needs of working families.

We greeted our team member and driver, Steve Smith. He was excited to see us and shared that this weekly food drop is one of his favorite weekly runs. He always enjoys connecting with pantry managers and volunteers. This route is a favorite because “I visit with my friends at the pantry, and it’s so close downtown; the coast is beautiful.” Steve unloaded quickly and efficiently and then was on his way to his next stop for the day, Come Spring Food Pantry in Union.

On our visit, we met with Executive Director Joe Ryan, and Program Manager, Sara Spencer. The pantry has three full-time staff members and currently 140 active volunteers. Collectively, their volunteers give an average of 15,000 hours each year to help run their food and energy programs. The community of individuals, businesses, partners, and foundations who provide volunteer hours and donate financially, enables them to distribute food and fuel to so many neighbors in Knox County.

AIO’s current programs include their Market, which has an indoor client-choice shopping model. “With our new space, we wanted the Market to feel like going to the supermarket. A place where you see your friends and choose the food you want and need for your family,” said Joe. The pantry has a large variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, dry goods, snacks, beverages, and personal hygiene items to select from.

The pantry also has a fruitful, unique partnership with Mid Coast School of Technology Culinary Class. The school’s culinary department, within the vocational school, prepares weekly meals in bulk for the Market. “This partnership is great because the students are now learning to prepare bulk meals. Learning different restrictions, labeling, and how to make meals from pantry-provided ingredients. Also, students have visited the pantry and get to see their meals making an impact in the community.” Another partnership the Market has is with one of the Maine Department of Corrections facilities in Warren, Maine. They provide baked goods, like bread and cookies, to the Market’s shelves.

AIO also provides energy assistance to households by providing heating fuel or preventing electricity disconnection. To assist neighbors with energy assistance, the pantry works directly with fuel and electric providers.

Weekend Meals, a collaboration with the Food Bank, is a program that provides meals and snacks to school-age children during the school year. The pantry partners with local schools to distribute kid-friendly food bags every Friday, ensuring students have nutritious food to eat over the weekend. AIO also supports families by providing diaper assistance, and there are always diapers and wipes available to neighbors in the Market.

Along with the effort of their dedicated volunteers, AIO has three annual community fundraisers. Fill the Strand, Artfeeds, and the Shepard Challenge. Fill the Strand is their winter event hosted at the Strand Theater in downtown Rockland. To help provide food and heating assistance during a challenging part of the year, AIO fills the theater seats with food and donations. In a movement to connect food and art, AIO harnessed the art community in Rockland to create Artfeed, a creative community fundraiser. In collaboration with the community’s vibrant artists, Page Gallery, and the Maine State Correctional Facility, local artists create a bowl to be exhibited at the Page Gallery in Camden. All proceeds from art sales benefit AIO. The Shepard Challenge was established through a partnership with Shepard Auto Group. Each year the car dealer does a matching gift challenge to support heat assistance in Knox County.

The vision of AIO is to have a hunger-free community, but until then, they are committed to ensuring that no one in the community is hungry or cold in their homes.

The market is open:

Mondays & Wednesdays from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Fridays 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

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.