Bridgton Food Pantry users step up to support funding request

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The personal stories of residents who depend on the Bridgton Food Pantry to make ends meet highlighted Tuesday’s public hearing on a citizen petition seeking $10,000 from taxpayers to help the pantry feed Bridgton residents.

One man said that when he came to Bridgton four years ago, “I was in a real financial jam,” and was amazed at all the help he was offered by the pantry, the town, the Bridgton Community Center and others. “Since then I’ve gotten to know people and there’s a lot of people who take advantage of the food pantry. They’re like me — just getting by — and they are very, very grateful to the pantry,” he said.

A young woman said, “I was denied general assistance and my five-year-old daughter would be hungry if not for the food pantry.” The income guidelines for general assistance are so low, she said, “they don’t mean too much” in terms of gauging how many people actually need the kind of lifeline the pantry provides.

Many people have had their food stamps cut this year, said Bridgton Food Pantry Director Penni Robbins, which explains the big jump in the number of families served by the pantry — from 35-37 families last year to 75-80 families this year.

The petition, which is Question 5 on the June 14 referendum ballot, asks if voters agree to “Set town funding of the Bridgton Food Pantry at $10,000 per year starting in Fiscal Year 2016-2017 to cover increased expenses and costs of running our vitally important local food pantry.” The funding would apply only to this fiscal year, even though the wording presumes the funding would continue in future years.

Selectmen have recommended a “No” vote, in part because of a belief that it should be up to individual citizens to decide what charities they want to support financially, but also because the request is being made directly to voters instead of to the town as part of the normal budget process.

“Why didn’t you come before the town during the regular budget process?” Selectman Bob McHatton asked petitioner George Bradt. Doing so might well have elicited the selectmen’s support, McHatton said, if the board and Budget Advisory Committee had had the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the need.

Bradt said he was aware that the town decided to cut the food pantry funding by $10,000 a couple of years ago. “I took your decision as a no vote. I just didn’t want to take the chance” this year, he said.

The pantry relies entirely on donations and is all-volunteer, with the exception of one driver who is paid $40 a month, said Robbins. Of private donations received, only one donation is of a set amount and can be counted on each month, she said. The pantry, which distributes food, toiletries and pet food every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to around 3 p.m., spends $800 to $1,000 a month on food.

For a resident with a $100,000 home, said Bradt, “We’re asking them to pay one dollar more” on their tax bills. To selectmen, he said, “Isn’t part of your title the Overseers of the Poor?”

Selectman Bob McHatton sparked indignation from several people in the audience when he said he had earlier supported the request but changed his mind after learning that the food pantry does not impose income restrictions on its recipients. “There’s no requirements or rules that allow you to get a food package, 75 to 90 pounds per week, so I’m changing my vote to not be in favor of this,” he said.

Pantry board member Karen Hawkins pointed out, however, that the pantry is just following the rules laid out by the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, who came down hard on them a few years ago for asking too many personal financial questions on the application that first-time pantry users are asked to fill out.

“If they need food, Good Shepherd told us we have to give it,” Hawkins said. Food pantry recipients need to bring in proof of residency, in the form of a light bill or something that shows their actual address. She said the pantry used to ask if the person was getting food stamps, but now the only requirement is that they must be a Bridgton resident.

Bradt said it’s hardly the case that someone “drives up in their Maserati” to receive food from the pantry, but even if someone appears to be financially comfortable, “We don’t know what is going on in that person’s life. Who are we to judge?”

He said Father Craig Hacker of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bridgton identified 10 children at Stevens Brook Elementary School who live in extreme poverty. “They don’t know where the next meal is coming from,” said Bradt. Adding a penny for each $10,000 of assessed valuation, which is what the funding would do, is “an inexpensive way for us all to chip in.”

Hawkins said the Bridgton United Methodist Church on Main Street, which is where the pantry is located, does not charge a utility fee, even though the pantry has four freezers and three refrigerators. “The pantry wouldn’t exist without their help.”

The question will be voted on by secret ballot referendum on June 14 — the day before Town Meeting —along with local elections, the sewer ordinance revisions and several planning board ordinances. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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