“Some guests fear the bag of dried beans they pick up from our pantry, but I love talking with them about how they can prepare them really easily and how they can make a huge batch to freeze so they’ll have a source of protein that lasts into the winter,” says Heather Arvidson, Volunteer and Client Services Manager at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program (MCHPP). MCHPP is a nonprofit organization based in Brunswick, Maine, whose mission is to “offer dignity and empowerment by providing all members of our community with access to healthy food.” They do this for over 1000 households each year. Heather is one of the many passionate people at MCHPP who make this happen.
Heather had her first experiences helping to provide people with good, healthy food far from Brunswick. You may never have heard of the Kingdom of Eswatini, a small country in Sub-Saharan Africa, but that is where she served in the Peace Corps. She was assigned as a youth development volunteer at a primary school where she did everything from starting a school garden to teaching sexual education in a country with one of the world’s highest HIV rates. From there, she moved to Phoenix to work at a non-profit that provided positive behavioral support to children and families. But Maine was calling her back.
She grew up in Massachusetts but spent plenty of time in Maine as a kid—summers in Belgrade, Maine, with her aunt, uncle and cousins, her parents, and two younger sisters on Mt. Desert Island, and winters skiing at Sugarloaf and Sunday River. When she chose Colby for college, “that’s when I solidified my love of Maine,” she says. “There are so many things to do here year-round—endless adventures and great people to explore with.” It solidified her love for connecting with and helping other people as well. Her studies in Anthropology created a base for understanding people with very different needs. “It has really helped me in all the jobs I’ve had. I’m able to picture what other people are going through and to be more empathetic.”
Empathy is certainly a requirement for MCHPP staff. It helps them to connect with a wide variety of clients and also a large number of volunteers of all interests and backgrounds. She was hired in 2017 as the organization’s Volunteer Coordinator and was in charge of training and overseeing roughly 1200 volunteers each year in duties like passing out food at the pantry, preparing a hot meal for the lunch service, or packaging take-home food for schools to pass out to students, to name a few. Her responsibilities have grown to supervise the staff who oversee client-based programs which include the Kitchen, Pantry, Mobile Pantries, Pantry to Pantry, School Pantry, and Summer Food Service Program as well as continuing to manage the volunteer program. She also recently became the coordinator for the Food Security Coalition.
Given Heather’s job, you might think that she has always been a foodie. But, she says, “As a kid I did’nt really like to cook. But food was important to our family. We always ate dinners together even when we were all very busy doing different things,” she adds. As she has grown up, however, food has become a bigger part of her life both professionally and personally. “I’ve come to enjoy cooking so much more since working here and have learned so much about food,” she says. Heather has been a vegetarian for many years, so healthy eating is important to her and is something she likes to share with clients. “Last week a woman came through our pantry who was dairy and gluten intolerant. I spoke with her about recipe ideas for her and her kids. Right now we aren’t able to give many specialized boxes of food due to our no touch pantry, but I was able to spend some time getting this woman the food she needed, and she was so thankful.” Although eating healthy is a big part of her life, she does also admit to having a sweet tooth. “I guess I’d say chocolate ice cream with cake is my favorite food—anything with ice cream, really.”
Her job is always challenging, but the current pandemic has posed new hurdles. The number of volunteers has dropped dramatically due to the changes in their operations, but she has been amazed at how dedicated so many people have been. “We had many volunteers step into new roles and many new volunteers joined the team. Students home from college, furloughed employees, etc., all stepped in to help out. We’ve realized how much we can still do with far fewer hands. I’m more appreciative than ever of volunteers for donating their time and energy to our cause!” They’ve also reorganized the space inside in creative ways. Since they have been unable to use their dining room, they have converted it into storage space. This is critical as they prepare for fall and need to accommodate an increase in donations of dry goods as well as surplus from local farms.
“We will be overloaded with all sorts of fall squashes,” says Heather, “which is one thing a lot of guests don’t know how to cook. It’s fun to educate them on easy and delicious ways to prepare it.” Apples are another bumper fall crop. Volunteers turn surplus apples into applesauce that they can freeze and hand out in the pantry throughout the year. Tomatoes too—they use lots of these in meal preparation and can avoid using canned tomatoes by processing the fresh ones from local farms.
Heather and her fellow staff members and volunteers will be working hard this fall to make sure that no one goes hungry. That includes Heather, who enjoys eating the delicious food that the volunteer chefs prepare. “We have some amazingly talented chefs who cook here,” she says. “And of course, there’s always dessert.”