Storm adds anxiety but won’t stall efforts to serve holiday meals to hungry Mainers

PORTLAND, Maine – The threat of a storm expected to blanket the state with more than 6 inches of snow Wednesday and Thursday will not deter charitable organizations working to provide Thanksgiving meals for Mainers who might otherwise go hungry on the holiday.

"We think Thursday’s going to be fine when we have the meal," said Mary Zwolinski, executive director of the Portland-based Wayside Food Programs. "We don’t think it’s going to impact the meal itself on Thursday. I remember one previous Thanksgiving when we had a lot of snow, it didn’t really affect our turnout. So if people are planning to come out, they’ll find a way to make it out."

Wayside will rally 100 volunteers to serve more than 300 Thanksgiving meals at The Portland Club on State Street, carving up 35 turkeys charitably cooked nearby at DiMillo’s On the Water floating restaurant.

Mark Swann is the executive director of the Portland nonprofit Preble Street, which runs a group of soup kitchens, shelters and a food pantry in the city. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the organization partnered with local radio station Rewind 100.9 FM and on-air personality Chuck Igo to hold its annual pre-Thanksgiving food drive, an effort Swann said would bring in more than 100,000 pounds of food and help the nonprofit ramp up for a challenging holiday stretch.

"We’re open 24 hours, and we staff up around the holidays because it’s a tough time for people and there’s a lot of anxiety," he said. "The messages around family and home and big meals can be very discouraging for the people we serve. This [snowstorm] does add another level of anxiety for people – there are challenges and safety concerns. We know we’ll be busy the next few days."

Swann said his organization will serve turkey on Thursday at its facilities in recognition of the holiday, but otherwise won’t break from its exhaustive routine of dishing up more than 1,200 daily meals to the Portland area’s homeless and hungry people.

"The winter comes and the holidays are particularly tough," said U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, one of about 50 volunteers at the Preble Street soup kitchen unloading a busload of donated food Wednesday afternoon. "It’s sobering to realize there are people out there who aren’t able to sit down at a table with their families for the holidays."

Between its soup kitchens and food pantry, Swann said Preble Street is on pace to distribute more than 575,000 meals this year. He said the organization’s 35,000-meal total for October was its highest monthly figure ever.

"The recession has not ended for poor people," he said. "The job market for poor people is incredibly challenging. The housing market is very expensive. While the national economy has kind of leveled off, it has not trickled down to the people we serve."

Swann said holidays and inclement weather – like the storm set to barrel through Maine on Wednesday night into Thursday – do tend to motivate people to donate more to groups like his, however.

"There are spikes [in giving] that happen, not just around the two major holidays, but around the weather," Swann said with a nod to Thanksgiving and Christmas. "Last year, we had a few major storms, and that’s when I’d get calls from folks like L.L. Bean and Rotary clubs and other organizations saying, ‘This terrible weather must really be a challenge for you and the people you serve, how can we help?’"

Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick will not serve Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, but has been preparing its clients for the holiday for several weeks by distributing Thanksgiving baskets.

Depending on the size of the family, the baskets contain a chicken or a turkey, and "ingredients to make all the fixings," said Jackson Bouchard, general assistant to the program. "Potatoes, various spices, some canned soups and vegetables, stuff to make stuff, cranberry sauce, etc."

So far, the program has distributed more than 440 baskets, although Bouchard said Wednesday morning that with more baskets still to hand out, "we might go over 500 today."

BDN writer Beth Brogan contributed to this report.