ROCKLAND, Maine — Every Monday for about four hours, Anne Cogger of St. George comes to Area Interfaith Outreach Food and Energy Assistance in Rockland to volunteer. Cogger is a retired social worker, so the desire to help others isn't an unfamiliar one. And she said she could no longer watch from the sidelines, after seeing how the current cost of everyday life has affected people.
"You find people coming who would not come before," Cogger said.
Cogger said that's likely because of the rising costs of electricity, heating, and housing over the past couple of years.
"It’s so easy to be in your own part of the community and not realize the need that’s out there," Cogger said.
Joe Ryan, the executive director of AIO, said AIO is Knox County's largest food pantry. It began more than 30 years ago, when local churches came together to figure out a way to address hunger. AIO serves residents throughout the area and also helps other smaller local pantries support their clients. Ryan said with pandemic-era assistance programs winding to an end, they've been serving about 300 families per week.
"The emergency food assistance is cutting back," Ryan said. "Recent reductions in the SNAP program have been significant."
Ryan said AIO is set up like a grocery store. Members collect a ticket to limit overcrowding and then scan a member card when it's their turn to shop. They can use one of the grocery carts available in the pantry to feel like they're shopping at a grocery store or market.
"Very often, this pantry is full of laughter and chatter and children talking and playing, which is not what you would typically find in a traditional food pantry," Ryan said, later adding, "Rather than [us] packing food into a box and handing it to somebody, people can come choose the food that’s right for them, that’s right for their family."
AIO's administrative assistant Keisha Beal has had experience doing that. She grew up in a household that was food insecure and said she relied on AIO both as a child and as a mother with children of her own.
"If it weren’t for the food pantry, we would’ve gone hungry on several occasions," Beal said.
She said she wants people to know they shouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed if they need to ask for help.
"It should not be stigmatized to be hungry," Beal said.