A steady stream of cars lined up Friday morning, Nov. 20, at the Mount View Complex to pick up boxes of free food from the federal Department of Agriculture. Young families, senior citizens and veterans came to the event, where the only question asked was, "How many boxes would you like?"

Cherie Merrill, executive director at the Belfast Soup Kitchen, which sponsored the event, in a conversation with The Republican Journal Nov. 19, said the response to the Farmers to Families food box distribution program has been “overwhelming.”

“There is a huge need in the community,” she said.

At the Nov. 20 event, pallets of boxes filled with produce, meat and dairy were unloaded from a tractor-trailer and distributed to Waldo County residents at Mount View and athenahealth in Belfast.

According to Merrill, each location had 1,200 total boxes to give away, with each 30-pound box containing vegetables and fruit, chicken, hot dogs, a gallon of milk, and other dairy items.

In the event held last month, Merrill said, all of the 2,500 boxes the soup kitchen was allotted were given out and an additional 200 boxes were picked up from the Hampden Good Shepherd Food Bank to fill the need.

The USDA program, she said, was born out of the pandemic after restaurants closed and many people found themselves laid off and unable to feed their families. With this effort, the USDA pays farmers for their products, and the food is available to the community for free with no eligibility requirements.

Merrill said any nonprofit can apply to receive boxes. “After submitting our application,” she said, “they sent a tractor-trailer to the site directly from the vendor.” In recent weeks, the soup kitchen has been busy getting the word out, sending out emails to towns and food pantries. “We have an amazing food distribution network in Waldo County,” she said.

Some towns have even organized groups to pick up boxes for residents who cannot make it to one of the two distribution sites, in collaboration with their town offices and fire departments.

Karen York of the Montville Volunteer Fire Department said volunteers would be picking up around 50 boxes for residents “to make sure we are covered.” By Nov. 19, she said she had received between 15 and 18 requests for food from townspeople.

Merrill said 20 to 30 volunteers were helping make this distribution possible, including members of the Waldo County Sheriff's Office, Maine State Police, Belfast Police, Waldo Community Action Partners, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, Waldo County Bounty and the Mount View staff.

The initiative was announced in April as part of the Coronavirus Response and CARES Act supporting farmers with up to $3 billion in purchases of produce, dairy, and meat by the USDA for distribution through regional and local agencies to food banks and other nonprofits serving people in need.

Now in the sixth round of distribution, Merrill said that unfortunately not all the food is from Maine. “The last two rounds, no, but in the second round, Maine Farmers Exchange (from Presque Isle) won the bid.” That meant “we could feed Maine food to Maine people.”

The boxed food in the Nov. 20 distribution, she said, came from Jessup, Maryland.

At that distribution event at Mount View, Mary Leaming of Waldo County Bounty said it is hard to say what is driving the need in the county. With winter fast approaching and concerns over the coronavirus, people are anxious, she said. Leaming anticipates another distribution event in December, but said it is contingent on federal funding, which changes each time.

"It's great to see the different Waldo County entities coming together" to address a critical need, she said.

A couple of weeks ago, at a previous event, she said there was an "unbelievable line," and the staff at Mount View "basically saved the day," pulling together volunteers to help out. Leaming said she is thankful for the partnership that has developed with the staff at the school. "This is possible because of you guys," Leaming said, addressing all Mount View staff at the event.

Waldo County Bounty volunteer Colleen Hanlon-Smith said that after doing the math, counting all the six distributions, "we've given out 315,000 pounds of food."

Hauns Bassett, Mount View High School JMG teacher, who volunteered at the distribution event, said, "You just don't understand (the need) until you see the amount of people here, and how thankful they are.

"You feel helpless," Bassett said. "It feels good to be productive and helpful."