25 years and still growing strong: Norway Community Free Lunch

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ORDER UP — Volunteers at the Norway Community Free Lunch program prepare plates of food for the roughly 100 people they serve each week. A 25-year anniversary celebration is slated from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at the Universalist Church of Norway.

NORWAY — For the past 25 years, the Oxford Hills Area Association of Churches has sponsored the weekly Norway Community Free Lunch and those who have volunteered and/or participated in the program are invited to the anniversary celebration this weekend.

The celebration is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at the First Universalist Church of Norway at 479 Main St., the same site as the community lunch. Cake, ice cream and punch will be served.

The community lunch is served every Wednesday, beginning at 11:30 a.m. at the church, except for when SAD 17 cancels school for inclement weather. There are no income requirements or any forms to fill out for the lunch program. While it is a free meal, donations are accepted to help keep the program running.

Last year, program volunteers fed 4,523 individuals, who come from all over the Oxford Hills and beyond, including Norway, Paris, Oxford and even as far away as Bridgton. The cost to feed these people was $1,279, or 14 cents each, according to a press release from Oxford Hills Area Association of Churches President Rosalie Ketchum and Treasurer Faylene McKeen.

McKeen got involved with the community lunch program three years ago when longtime volunteer Lee Millett wanted to stop being treasurer.

“I wish we could encourage more people to come and see what we actually do. It was the biggest eye opener I’ve had in a lot of time,” she said. “The first time I went there [I saw] the amount of people who need this service in this area.”

On average there are 100 people served lunch each week, depending on the weather. Last week, there were 108.

“We were full. That’s great. That’s what we cook for,” McKeen said.

The food mostly comes from Hannaford, Good Shepherd Food Bank and Walmart. In addition to each meal, every table – and there are 12 of them – gets a fruit salad and vegetable salad, along with bread. Then there ars various drinks – water, milk, coffee, grape juice and the like – and dessert, which is whatever comes from Hannaford’s bakery.

“You never know what you’re going to get – that’s the part that amazes me,” McKeen said.

If any of the meal food is leftover, participants can bring it home with them. But they also get to take bread, baked goods, fruits and vegetables.

“Not a lot of people out there are aware they can do this,” McKeen said.

Humble beginnings

It was in 1992 when members of local churches met and formed the Oxford Hills Area Association of Churches, who decided they should create a program to feed their neighbors in need. Millett, 89, was there since the beginning and only stopped volunteering because a heart attack (and pushing from his children) forced him to.

The program started out small, but word got around and grew to what it is today, according to Millett. And he did many things for the community lunch program – picked up the food, cleaned up, peeled potatoes, went to the dump and the like.

“Good Shepard – I used to go down every week to pick up food. I would pick up what I knew we could use. If they didn’t have it, I would go after something else,” he said, adding he picked up donations from Hannaford as well.

“I did put in a lot of hours. Even my wife complained about that sometimes, but she didn’t complain about the fact she didn’t have to cook,” Millett said, smiling. His wife, Marion, also sometimes cooked the community lunch, as the cooks rotate each week. “I was told a good many times it was a very good program.”

Millett was able to incorporate local farmers into the program as well. Pig farmers come each week for scraps to feed their livestock and during the warmer weather, vegetable farmers drop off produce to be used in the meals.

“They never told me who they were or that they wanted anything for it. I asked, ‘How much do we owe ya?’ [They told him,] ‘That’s a gift.’ … When you get enough … potatoes for a meal that’s a pretty good gift. We went through a lot of potatoes, I know, because I peeled them,” he said, laughing.

Volunteers

But none of this would be possible without the volunteers McKeen and Millett acknowledge.

“’We’ve had some awful good help,” Millett said. “Most of them enjoyed working there. They realized how good it was for the public.”

McKeen concurred and said there are roughly 12 volunteers.

“It is an amazing bunch of people,” she said. “We have some people who come in early in the morning and do the prepping.”

Then there’s Leo Cardin of Paris who took over the food pick up. He and his wife, Linda, became involved with the community lunch roughly 18 years ago. Now he picks up food Monday-Wednesday not only for the community lunch, but the Oxford Hills Food Pantry at the Christ Episcopal Church in Norway.

And Leo has a lot of respect for Millett.

“One of the people very involved I kind of emulate … when I was there, I did end up helping him – Lee Millett,” Leo said. “He’s very instrumental in that place. … He did a lot work there. A lot of the things I do, he used to do.”

Linda said the couple really enjoys volunteering at the community lunch and began volunteering once a month and now volunteer every week except for one.

“It not only helps the community, it keeps us involved in the community. It makes us feel good,” she said. “You get to know the people and you care about them.”

Lisa Jones of Norway has been with the community lunch program since day one and is one of the four volunteer cooks. Each of them have their own specialty, including Shepherd’s pie, chicken dishes and pork chops.

“I did a lot of lasagna. It takes three days to prepare when you have to think [of cooking for] upwards of 100 people. I have to brown up 40 pounds of hamburger,” she said. “This winter I’ve been doing meatloaf. … I did 50 pounds of meatloaf two weeks ago.”

Jones noted her appreciation for the food donations, especially from Hannaford and Wal-Mart.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have a program,” she said.

For President Ketchum, she is part of the wait staff and clean up crew and does this to help out.

“I enjoy seeing people come and have their lunch but it’s more than that. They have a social time, they want to sit together, they want to chat together,” she said. “We also have a number of people come from the Progress Center and group homes [and] other places and that’s good. It’s a social outlet for them.”

Sponsors sought

While all of the food is donated, the Oxford Hills Area Association of Churches has to pay for the paper products, according to McKeen. The group seeks a sponsor to help offset the cost of these. Anyone interested in donating or sponsoring the paper products can contact McKeen at 743-6062.

Linda Cardin noted they is always more room for additional volunteers.

“It is a good program and if any businesses would like to help, we are always looking for help not just monetarily. We always welcome people to volunteer and be with us,” she said.

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