How a venerable soup kitchen in Portland, Maine, kept feeding the hungry as Covid-19 ravaged the city

In March 2020, Covid-19 forced the Preble Street soup kitchen in Portland, Maine, to close its dining room for the first time in 39 years. But, as Christian Letourneau reports in FERN’s latest story, published with Eater, the soup kitchen staff went mobile, tracking and delivering meals and other services to the growing ranks of the hungry and homeless who scattered across the city as shelters and other aid operations shut down or restricted access. 

“Since 1980, Preble Street has been the linchpin of the city’s response to homelessness and food insecurity — and a life-sustaining resource for thousands,” Letourneau writes. “Joe Conroy is the senior director of food programs and operations at the agency that operates the eponymous soup kitchen. Leveraging a complex food-rescue and -donation system, his team churns out some 24,000 meals a month served in a cafeteria-style dining room. On any given day, anything from a pallet of B&M baked beans to a five-gallon bucket of dayboat scallops might become the featured ingredient.

“As Covid-19 swept into the state last winter, Conroy’s system started breaking down. On March 15, the state began rolling out a slate of executive orders, closing public schools and restaurants and limiting gatherings. Panic shopping cut into the grocery store donations the kitchen relied on for produce, bread, and other staples. Meanwhile, chefs from the city’s celebrated restaurant scene came knocking at the soup kitchen door, dropping off anything they could salvage as they cleaned out low boys and walk-ins at their now-shuttered restaurants.

“The soup kitchen dining room remained open under an exemption for social services, but Conroy knew it wouldn’t last long.

“[On March 25 last year, for the first time in its history, Preble Street closed its dining room. Suddenly, the delicate web of social services that Portland’s unhoused community relied on to meet basic needs, a system largely concentrated in Preble’s Bayside neighborhood, began to unravel. This unravelling, which led to a forced dispersal of the city’s homeless population, brought into stark relief the conflicting imperatives of public health, public safety, and emergency services brought on by the pandemic. It became clear that if Preble Street was going to keep feeding people, the model — and maybe even the organization’s entire mission — would need to be rethought.”