China Community Food Pantry: Nonprofit Spotlight

The China Food Pantry at 1320 Lakeview Drive in China. (photo by Eric Austin)

Central Maine non-profit organizations: Their Mission, Their Goals

by Eric W. Austin

Nearly 30 years ago, Lee and Ann Austin founded the China Community Food Pantry with one goal in mind: to help reduce food insecurity in central Maine. The couple had owned and operated the Willow Beach Camps Resort on China Lake for more than a decade, and after closing the establishment, they were looking for a way to give back to a community that had been so supportive of them over the years. Lee Austin was a China native, growing up in South China and attending Erskine Academy, while Ann had grown up in Whittier, California, and was teaching kindergarten at China Elementary School.

Volunteer Dale Peabody sets up food boxes on the front porch of China Community Food Pantry. (photo by Ann Austin)

Although Lee passed away in 2016 after a heroic battle with pancreatic cancer, his wife, Ann, continues to pursue their vision to reduce food insecurity in Maine, hosting the food pantry in what was once the dining room and kitchen for Willow Beach Camps Resort, and is now the upstairs floor of her home in China.

Over the years, many dozens of local people have donated their time and financial support to make the food pantry successful. “We would be nothing without our volunteers,” Ann says. “They are the heart and soul of the food pantry and I couldn’t do this without their help.”

Volunteers work on Fridays and Saturdays when the food pantry is open from 12 to 1 p.m., but many volunteers arrive as early as eight o’clock to start getting ready. Food needs to be sorted and marked. Floors must be swept and counters cleaned. Boxes must be broken down and taken to the transfer station for recycling. Since the start of the pandemic, bundles of food are made up ahead of time for differently-sized households because patrons can no longer browse through the pantry in person.

But that’s not all. Food deliveries need to be made too. Last year, the food pantry was able to purchase a used cargo van, funded entirely through donations. This vehicle is driven by volunteers to local grocery stores, and then back to the China Food Pantry multiple times each week. Food deliveries happen on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Many local farms also donate surplus food to the effort.

Volunteers Lucas Gombojav, left, and Donna Loveland, right, demonstrate how food boxes are delivered to clients while maintaining social distancing at China Food Pantry. (photo by Ann Austin)

On an average week, the food pantry serves 40-50 families. Although some food provided through federal programs can only be given to China residents, much of the rest is available to patrons coming from other towns in central Maine and no one is ever turned away.

The work is never-ending. Volunteers show up every week, week after week. Their rewards are the words of thanks they receive from patrons. Many of those patrons later become volunteers as a way to repay the kindness they once received. “Pay it forward” is a good phrase to describe the China Food Pantry. It’s a continuous cycle of giving that has worked for almost three decades.

Ann Austin is now in her 70s, with nine grandchildren, and retired from teaching, but she continues to manage the food pantry. She leads a group of determined volunteers that share her giving spirit. Together they are working to make the world a little bit better, one community at a time.

If anyone is interested in joining the effort to reduce food insecurity in central Maine, Ann can be reached at 968-2421 or by mail at PO Box 6012, China Village, 04926.

The food pantry is located at 1320 Lakeview Drive in China just south of the Lakeview Lumber hardware store. The pantry’s hours of operation are Friday and Saturday from 12 – 1 p.m.

The Town Line will continue with a series on local nonprofit groups and their work in their respective communities. To include your group, contact The Town Line at townline@townline.org.

 
 

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