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HUNGER AND THE ELDERLY | January 5, 2014

An oasis in a food desert

Even in the midst of Maine's most agricultural areas, seniors can find access to fresh produce limited. And that's where Friends of Aroostook steps in.

Gillian Graham

| Staff Writer
ggraham@pressherald.com
hungry

Dale Flewelling, who runs the Houlton-based Friends of Aroostook farm program sits near 26 thousand pounds of potatoes that are set to be shipped people in need. Getting fresh vegetables to seniors who are homebound or have difficulty getting to grocery stores or farm stands is essential for their health, Flewelling said. Many have trouble buying fresh produce because of transportation, health or money issues, he said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer



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OULTON — As small Aroostook County towns give way to rolling potato fields, seniors in some of the most rural areas of the state find themselves living in an unlikely place: the middle of a food desert.

“Often we think that in an agricultural area, produce is easily accessible. It’s not so,” said Dale Flewelling, who runs the Houlton-based Friends of Aroostook farm program. “Folks in Aroostook, especially seniors, have less access to fresh produce than in York County. I don’t think people realize that. They think there are fields galore.”

Friends of Aroostook is partnering with Meals on Wheels and Good Shepherd Food Bank to get fresh produce into the hands of seniors, who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a food desert – a place where most residents live more than 10 miles from a grocery store.

“People don’t think of Aroostook County as a food desert because we grow everything here,” said Dottie Sines, wellness nutrition director for the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, which provides Meals on Wheels to more than 800 seniors. “You look around and think how come people are hungry? But most of the food goes out of the county.”

There are more than 2.3 million Americans who live in rural food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of Aroostook and Washington counties are so defined.

Last year, Friends of Aroostook distributed 117,000 pounds of food across the county and beyond. This year the program distributed 106,150 pounds of produce, below the goal of 130,000 pounds because of a light harvest, Flewelling said.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Growing thousands of pounds of potatoes, rutabagas, carrots and other vegetables has become a full-time mission for Flewelling and his small staff of part-time employees and volunteers. The food is distributed through Meals on Wheels, Good Shepherd Food-Bank and other volunteer groups.

Meals on Wheels is able to get produce to seniors the same day, while Good Shepherd can supply food pantries within a couple days. It is the fastest and most efficient way to get vegetables with a short shelf life to seniors and onto shelves at food pantries, Flewelling said.

Started through Empowering Life, a faith-based ministry in Houlton, Friends of Aroostook is now an independent nonprofit. Since 2008, the program has grown produce on land donated by local farmers. Next year, the program will move to its own leased 44-acre farm in the greater Houlton area. Flewelling said his crew will plant 20 acres in 2014 and prepare the rest of the land for the following growing season.

Hunger

Dale Flewelling, who runs the Houlton-based Friends of Aroostook farm program moves potatoes at the David Winship Family Farm in Hodgdon as he prepares for a shipment.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Getting fresh vegetables to seniors who are homebound or have difficulty getting to grocery stores or farm stands is essential for their health, Flewelling said. Many have trouble buying fresh produce because of transportation, health or money issues, he said.

“They just can’t get to it. We’re trying to help bridge that gap,” Flewelling said.

Seniors who receive Meals on Wheels at home or through congregate dining centers also receive bags of produce provided by Friends of Aroostook. This winter, a variety pack delivered to seniors includes winter squash, potatoes, beets and carrots. More than 450 have been delivered so far and Flewelling expects to provide another 2,000 pounds of produce this winter.

“We’ve found seniors miss getting fresh fruits and veggies, like salad and apples,” Sines said. “Now they are overjoyed. When they get beet greens, they gobble those up. They’re using everything we get them.”

Nancy Violette, 65, of Presque Isle receives the produce and has volunteered to bag vegetables for other seniors who go to The Gather Place Senior Center for a weekly Meals on Wheels lunch. She said the program helps because produce is expensive and many seniors will choose other groceries like bread and milk before they splurge on fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Fresh produce is expensive. When I was younger I always had a big garden. Now I’m at the age I can’t do that too much anymore,” she said.

Violette said the seniors who gather at the center are always grateful when the bags of produce arrive.

“They’re so happy, they’ll ask when the next vegetables are going to come in,” she said.

Flewelling said the new farm will make it easier for Friends of Aroostook to grow more produce and continue to build a network of people working to end hunger in Aroostook County.

“We’re making great strides in creating this system,” he said. “The system just wasn’t in place to provide to provide fresh produce on a consistent basis.”

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