BANGOR — John Donnelly of Manna Inc. has had a difficult time keeping the nonprofit organization stocked with enough food to meet the numerous requests this past week.
By noon Wednesday, he had fielded 60 to 70 telephone calls from people who had heard the site was an official distributor of free U.S. Department of Agriculture foods.
Ten volunteers worked quickly to meet the high demand, scuttling around tables piled high with boxes, canned goods, juices and bread, trying to prepare for the expected onslaught of residents at 2:30 p.m.
“Right now, we are making up food baskets as fast as we can,” said Donnelly. “Food comes in. It’s bagged and sent back out the other door.”
Several food cupboards — a vital ingredient in helping Mainers recover from last week’s ice storm — began distribution of several tons of USDA commodity foods Wednesday. The food was freed up after President Clinton declared 15 of 16 Maine counties a federal disaster area.
On Monday, the state Department of Human Services authorized a special storm-related food assistance program to help residents replenish their cupboards with a $50 food voucher.
Local municipalities disbursing the vouchers will be reimbursed by the state, according to DHS Commissioner Kevin Concannon.
“We don’t know how much the program will run [costwise],” said Concannon. “The state has never had an emergency like this. But we needed to do something.”
The state is taking the voucher money out of an “already established account that normally runs about $6 million per year,” according to the commissioner.
Normal general assistance standards will be relaxed during the disaster period, Concannon said. But individuals will have to meet certain criteria before receiving the funds.
First, residents can’t have any cash or money to buy food.
They can’t be receiving food stamps in excess of $50. The commissioner said anybody receiving more than $50 in food stamps who needs assistance can call the DHS for a partial food stamp reissue.
Also, residents applying for the voucher need to have lost their electricity for more than 24 hours.
Concannon said the department is relying on people’s honesty to take part in the program. There is no way to verify need.
“I have carpal tunnel syndrome from writing up vouchers,” said Mary-Anne Chalila, director of Bangor’s health and welfare department.
The Bangor office was so busy with requests Wednesday it had to shut down early, Chalila said. It will reopen at 8 a.m. Thursday.
The application process is quick, Chalila said. Residents answer questions regarding how many individuals live in the household; where the applicant works; when the individual expects his or her next work check; and, if the individual has a bank account, how much money is in the account.
Residents in the Bangor area can only use the vouchers only at Shaw’s supermarkets, according to Chalila. Residents elsewhere should find out what local supermarket has a contract with their municipality before going to purchase goods.
The vouchers are restricted, said Chalila. Nothing taxable may be bought, such as cookies, potato chips and soda. Deli orders are restricted. “We want people to be able to buy the most good food they can. They need to replace meat and dairy products,” she said.
Residents also need to use the entire voucher on one shopping trip.
Chalila also recommends that people turn to their local food cupboards, like Manna, for assistance.
Eventually, though, the food supply will drain, according to Steve Mooers, housing director at Penquis Community Action Program.
The USDA food now available at shelters should feed 6,000 to 7,000 Maine families for three to four meals, said Mooers.
Residents who need to locate a local food cupboard can call the nearest Community Action Program for assistance.