How Maine's elite culinary community is helping to feed children

On a sunny summer day in Portland, a woman is walking down Exchange street. She sees a boy, just a child, panhandling. How old is he? she wonders. He looks no older than 10, possibly 11. He holds out a cup for change. The woman stops walking and says hello. The boy, it turns out, is 13, small for his age. He has left his home somewhere north, run from an abusive home, and come to Portland in search of an older brother who left first. He had no idea how big Portland would be and cannot find his brother. The boy is hungry.

And who is the woman? She is Elena Schmidt, director of development at Preble Street Teen Center. In this small way, at least, the boy is lucky.

Preble Street is one of three places in the state where homeless and hungry teenagers can find meals,support services, and people who will advocate on their behalf. When a child runs from abuse or neglect (for many, the streets are safer than home) or when a family’s financial struggles leave the eldest kids to fend for themselves, Preble Street Teen Center steps in. Schmidt tells the 13-year-old about Preble Street, and then she brings him there. He is one of 75 teenagers who will be fed by the center that day.

Cut to another summer day. A gorgeous, windy June evening on the grounds of Portland’s Ocean Gateway Terminal. Along the crowded waterfront, an empty lot, an expanse of asphalt, and a tent. But not just any tent. This is a temporary palace, an ivory sandcastle-the Leavitt and Parris Pavilion. Inside are dozens of the state’s most influential chefs and innovative mixologists. This is Taste of the Nation, Portland, Maine, 2010.

Who’s here? Hardcore foodies, tourists, and those who are concerned about the 200,000 Mainers who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. One in five children in Maine are “food insecure,” and the people attending this event are shocked by these numbers.
For the price of an evening out, the guests come to this enchanted location where water meets land. They sample abundant delights, imbibe wine and cocktails, listen to live music. Maybe they win a gift certificate to a popular restaurant or a hotel stay or even a BMW. They rub shoulders with renowned chefs: Sam Hayward (Fore Street), Rob Evans (Hugo’s and Duckfat), Larry Matthews, Jr. (Back Bay Grill), Steve Corry (Five Fifty- Five), Lee Skawinski (Cinque Terre and Vignola), Jeff Landry (Farmer’s Table)-all founding members of Taste of the Nation in Maine. The eating and drinking and dancing are a celebration, yes, but all the proceeds go to four local organizations that feed and care for children in need.

The event, a program of the national nonprofit Share Our Strength, is sponsored by many local businesses, including this magazine. Stonewall Kitchen is an ardent supporter, Bill Dodge Auto Group donates cars to be raffled, and Cole Haan recently got on board.

Inside the tent, among the throngs, stands a certain father of four. John Woods is the committee chair of Taste of the Nation in Maine. “Summer is vacation for my kids,” he says. “But for many children, summer is a horrifying time.” For too many, summer means they suddenly lose access to the cafeteria lunches they had relied on during the school year.

Woods could not stomach this situation. The statistics shocked him. After years of running trade shows, food-service operations, and a marketing company, Woods felt he was in a unique position to help organize Taste of the Nation. He began volunteering in 2006 and has been on the board since 2009.

This June 26, under Woods’s leadership, Taste of the Nation will return to Maine for the sixth time. This year’s event will be held in a semi-permanent pavilion on the ocean- side grounds of Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. More than 25 of Maine’s finest restaurants will be on hand. In a state known for remarkable chefs and remarkable locally grown food, it’s hard to imagine a more delicious buffet.

This is the kind of food that people become impassioned about, and childhood hunger is the kind of issue that impassions people in the food industry.

Take Lynette Mosher. With her husband Robert Krajewski, she owns and operates Lily Bistro in Camden. Last year, along with Frank Isganitis of the LimeRock Inn and others, they put together a package for auction that was worth thousands. It included a stay at a historic inn, a lobster- boat trip, a three-day cruise, a spa visit, and- of course-dinner at Lily Bistro.

“Being a chef is a lot like being a rock star,” Mosher says. “It’s narcissistic, masochistic, sadistic. We work hard, play harder, and expect much, but in the end it’s just cooking.” Mosher stresses the importance of looking at the bigger picture, of making “choices that support the local community.” As the mother of a four-year-old, she sees firsthand the importance of nutrition to growing bodies. Share Our Strength speaks to this couple, and helps them speak up for those whose voices aren’t heard.

Rob Evans agrees. “The issue hits everyone,” says the renowned chef. “We can all empathize…people are going hungry, and we’re surrounded by so much.” Once Evans got involved, he saw how much more could be done. As a board member of Share Our Strength in Maine, he teaches cooking classes for another one of the nonprofit’s programs-Cooking Matters-and he is in the process of developing a restaurant dining series that will raise even more funding to support the cause.

Stella and Guy Hernandez own Bar Lola and the Hilltop Cafe in Portland’s East End. Stella believes that chefs and restaurant owners are in a unique position to focus more attention on childhood hunger. “We’ve got to expand the circle,” she says. “We’re all impacted by this issue, and chefs can put a public face on it.” She’s impressed with Share Our Strength, she says, for the intelligent way they connect people who enjoy food to the harrowing issue of hunger.

And it is harrowing, isn’t it? Maine children going hungry? And here you may be thinking, But a gala event? Given the gravity of the problem, is there something unseemly about such lavishness? Should a person feel perhaps a wee bit guilty for savoring the truffle-infused lobster macaroni-and- cheese prepared by Five Fifty-Five? Or for submitting to the incomparable pleasure of Masa Miyake’s spicy crab rolls?

Elena Schmidt certainly doesn’t think so. “There is no problem celebrating,” she says. “We live in a very generous community… everyone helps in their own way.”

Eating well and enjoying great food is no crime; the only crime is blindness to those who go without. The grander the event, the more money it raises, and the more local organizations will benefit.

Preble Street Teen Center is one of Taste of the Nation’s four beneficiaries. The cost of running Preble Street is staggering, Schmidt says. When asked how Preble Street will benefit from the event, she doesn’t mince words: “This event will help keep people alive.”

The three other beneficiaries are East End Kids Katering, which brings lunches to children cut off from school programs in the summertime; the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which is dedicated to distributing food to food pantries around the state; and Cultivating Community, which is helping to feed Maine’s most vulnerable by growing food using organic and sustainable methods.

All of these organizations think about the big picture-enacting broader social change, creating new food-distribution methods, and addressing the issue of childhood hunger at the public-policy level. But they also address the problem at hand-people are going hungry right now, today-and they’re ready to step in during moments of crisis. They recognize that you can’t make critical life changes, you can’t better yourself or the world around you, when your stomach is growling.

“The issue is so complicated,” explains Kristen Miale of Good Shepherd Food Bank and the program director of Cooking Matters to Maine. “On any given day, a family has to make a choice between paying the bills and eating food. Then they must spend as little as possible on what they can buy…meaning they eat highly processed food…with little nutritional value.”

This situation has created a terrible paradox in the United States: millions of adults and children are undernourished and going hungry every day, and yet our population suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and other afflictions that directly result from eating unhealthy food. The effects are not only personally devastating, but they are tremendously costly for our state and country. Part of Miale’s work is to teach people how to cook in healthy yet inexpensive ways. Recognizing this paradox, more and more food pantries are not only serving healthier food, but educating those in need to help them make better food choices. Which means, of course, that operational costs are rising. Taste of the Nation’s support enables its beneficiaries to meet the community’s short- and long-term needs.

Everyone agrees that it’s a win-win. Astonishingly delicious food. A gorgeous location. A worthy cause.

Joe Ricchio, Maine magazine’s food writer and a local restaurant worker, was at last year’s event whipping up Yuzu Sidecars on behalf of Miyake. “It’s a great time,” Ricchio says, “rather than an irritating ‘see and be seen’ kind of event where no one really knows why the hell they’re there. All of the restaurants roll in with a crew and throughout the day taste each other’s food and pass around cocktails. This gives the party a more relaxed feel, allowing the chefs to unwind and forget they are working on what is usually their only day off. All for a great cause.”

Indeed, the atmosphere is magical. Ocean breezes commingle with the aroma of sizzling meats and fragrant desserts. It’s magical, yes, but it’s also an illusion. Down the street, and throughout the state, parents and kids face empty cupboards.

Share Our Strength and Taste of the Nation envision a world with fewer empty cupboards, fewer panhandling children, and no need for their events.

Until then, we need a taste of reality.