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Stories from the Road – Harmony Cares Food Pantry

Through the winding backroads of rural Maine, we arrived in the small town of Harmony, in Somerset County, on an early summer evening. Like the town name, this community knows how to unite and uplift each other. In 2017, Harmony didn’t have an active food pantry, and the nearest pantry was over a 30-mile, round-trip drive to Cornville. When school nurse Mel Chadbourne (now co-director of the pantry) saw more and more kids experiencing hunger at school, something had to be done. She set up a small area in her office with cereal, peanut butter, and other shelf-stable items. This was the closest the town had to a food pantry. They started providing bags of food to the children, and it was apparent a pantry was needed in town. That’s when she and co-director Rodena Clowry initiated plans to open a pantry. Mel still works as the school nurse and sees the need for the pantry daily.

According to Feeding America, the food insecurity rate in Somerset County is 14.3 percent[1], which means about 7,220 people living in the area don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Seventy-eight percent of people in Somerset County are below the threshold for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other nutrition programs. [1] Based on 2021 Feeding America data.

With the increasing need for a food pantry, and with the assistance of the all-volunteer Harmony Patriarchs Club, a new organization was formed; Harmony Cares: Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry. The program opened its doors in the spring of 2017 with the hope of helping families in Harmony, Cambridge, and Wellington access food.

Initially, the program solely survived on donations and resided in a small building, which had served many roles for the community over the years. It was home to a church that burned down, a chicken coop, Veterans of Foreign Wars center, and a small school library. Now with partners like Good Shepherd Food Bank, the US Dept of Rural Development, and the Patriarchs Club, the building has been remodeled and has space enough to provide for a comfortable shopping experience, including neighbors’ choice of produce downstairs and two aisles of dry-food grocery-style shopping upstairs.

We visited the pantry on a Monday evening distribution day, meeting with co-directors Mel and Rodena and several volunteers. The sense of community at the pantry was evident when we arrived. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and busy preparing the pantry for distribution by stocking shelves and arranging fresh produce and meat for neighbors to select what they wanted and needed. Most volunteers at the pantry have been there for years and know the neighbors by name, what they like, and their needs. One volunteer mentioned that they always try to have non-meat options available for a vegan neighbor, as well as gluten-free options for people who need it. While visiting, we had the pleasure of speaking with a few volunteers about their experience volunteering at Harmony Cares and why they continue to give back to their community:

First, we met Donna, a retired community member who described herself as very introverted. “Volunteering gets me out and about, and it’s a good feeling. This is the social activity that I like to do.” Donna enjoys volunteering at other non-profits when she can and has been a regular volunteer at the pantry since 2018. “Volunteering is something I can do for my community and something for me to look forward to.”

When we spoke with Tom, he was proud to claim that he is one of the oldest and longest-standing volunteers, so far, “I’m 78, and I started volunteering in the fall of 2017, right after they opened in the spring.” Tom is now retired and his wife’s sole caregiver, who had a stroke in November 2022. “I’ve volunteered all my life, and this town has been nothing but fabulous to me. I enjoy giving back. Volunteering is my mental health break.”

We also met a brand-new volunteer and community member, Pat; she recently moved to Harmony from Ohio, where she had lived for two years. “I felt like I was finally home when I moved here. Everyone is so nice and welcoming in the area.” Before Ohio, she lived in Connecticut for 33 years. Pat moved to town because her son lives in a town nearby and she now resides in the town’s oldest house, right up the street from the pantry. “This food pantry is very different from the pantries I’ve been to in Connecticut. It’s lovely that there is so much fresh produce. I’m used to only seeing canned, bagged, and frozen, with little to no fresh produce. It’s just great here. The fresh produce is simply the best.”

While the pantry setup was happening, cars started lining up outside for distribution. This pantry runs deli-style, as Mel described it. Each neighbor gets a number, and once their number is called, they first come in and choose meat and produce and then a volunteer guides them through the dry section. The volunteer helping on our visit was Donna; she answered questions that people had about specific condiments and canned foods. There was also a lot of conversation about recipes to try. Mel said when they love to share recipes and extra snacks with neighbors while waiting in line to come in.

We had the opportunity to have conversations with a few neighbors who wanted to share their experiences and what the pantry means to them.

Michael is newly retired after a long and robust working career, which included over a decade at Shop N Save, time as a messenger and as a taxi driver, and as a caretaker for waterfront camps for six years. He once was also an avid hiker, “When I worked as a messenger, I walked 15 miles a day and climbed many mountains. I love hiking, but I haven’t been in six years because my knees aren’t what they used to be. Those are just memories now because I can’t do it anymore. Very good memories.” Now that he relies solely on his social security, the nutritious food he gets at Harmony Cares helps him stretch his budget a little further. “I like visiting the pantry because they have a wide variety of nutritious food, like many different vegetables. The options and the people are so good. I mean, so, so nice and helpful.”

Rocco waved us to his car with a big smile; he was excited to introduce us to his black lab, Misty. “That’s Misty. She won’t bite you. She’s a lover.” Rocco is a retired first responder from Massachusetts; he moved here in 1985 with his wife. “My wife passed away four years ago with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the worst disease I’ve ever seen.” Rocco is from the nearby town of Wellington, and he has been visiting the pantry since it opened in 2017. “When you’re retired, you only get so much income. The food pantry helps. If they didn’t have a food pantry, I don’t know.” Later we discovered that Misty’s favorite part about the pantry is the bags of apples, “I get these for her, her little treat.”

Jamie welcomed us over to talk but not without first complimenting us on wearing purple, “I love purple everything. I have pancreatic cancer, and that’s the color for awareness.” She even created the stickers that adorned her car – including sparkly purple ribbons – so she can raise awareness about a disease she has fought off twice and is currently fighting for a third time.

Jamie started visiting Harmony Cares when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2020, “It was February, and I had to go to Wisconsin to have the Whipple surgery done. I didn’t have to worry about grocery shopping while trying to raise the money to go to Wisconsin. That was such a big help. Wow. It’s such a big help. I have little kids. I mean, not little, they’re 20 and 14, but to me, they’re little.” With two kids at home and limitations on what she can eat due to chemo, Jamie loves the options that the pantry offers but Jamie shared, “I only come when I need it. So, if I’m getting a good amount of SNAP, I don’t come. The recently reduced benefits hurt many people; going grocery shopping and paying your bills is very difficult. And I’m disabled, so I don’t work. And when you’re raising kids, what do you do? And your kids are looking at you like, Mom, what are we going to eat? It’s challenging and sad; sometimes I cry over our situation, but, you know, people in Harmony look out for each other, and it’s amazing how the community pulls together and helps everybody out. I mean, look at the people here. I’m number 27. They’re feeding over 27 families right now. You know, there is a need in this community.”

Harmony Cares Food Pantry is dedicated to meeting and helping neighbors where they are. “We are blessed to do this for our community. We come together and believe everyone here comes because they are in need. We don’t ask questions; we welcome everyone and anyone,” said co-director Mel Chadbourne.

The pantry is open the 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m. for Harmony, Wellington, and Cambridge residents and open for anyone from any town the following Monday from 5:00-6:00 p.m. Additionally a clothing closet has been recently added to help with needs beyond food insecurity. The community closet is open to everyone and offers free clothing and accessories. Helping people lower their clothing costs allows them to have a little more in their food budget.

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.