By Scott Shurtleff – Correspondent
Merrimack Valley food Bank in L well is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Executive Director Amy Pessia peers out from the Mobile Pantry storage and assembly area.
Julia Malakie / lowell sun
Lowell » This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.
But there will be no birthday cake at the 735 Broadway warehouse. All the food that enters the building — including cake mixes — is quickly redistributed to needy individuals and organizations throughout the region.
The three- decade marriage between MVFB and the vast swath of recipients within its scope has grown from a mere flirtation that began in 1991 as a small program operated by the Middlesex Shelter ( now the Lowell Transitional Living Center).
A group of businesses and community leaders in Greater Lowell determined there was a demand for a food bank to serve Lowell. Then known as the Greater Lowell Food Bank, it was formed in October 1991. Official nonprofit status was granted on June 18, 1993, and MVFB had its own bylaws and board of directors.
The organization initially operated out of an old mill warehouse building using a rented U- Haul truck to pick up food donations and distribute them to a few local agencies. In 1995, MVFB operations moved to its current location, a 20,000- square- foot warehouse.
That steady growth is attributed to an increase in both demand and supply, burgeoning into 30 communities throughout the Merrimack Valley, averaging more than 3 million pounds of food distribution every year.
And according to Executive Director Amy Pessia, that number expanded over the past year.
“ We had a number of challenges that were unique to years past,” she said.
Three notable pandemic- related changes, according to Pessia, were children’s absence from schools, supply- chain interruption, and food- pantry shutdowns.
“ Children who would normally get meals in school were at home, so that increased demand,” Pessia said.
What used to be an open- door pickup center for clients at the warehouse is now delivery only, creating a need for more in- house volunteers to assemble packages based on online and telephone orders. That pushed the delivery needs to greater levels than ever before. And then Market Basket, one of the organization’s biggest benefactors, “slowed their supply because of in- store consumers buying up products,” Pessia said.
Despite the impediments and challenges, MVFB still procured and distributed a record 4 million pounds of food last year. They supply to shelters, schools and several other civic groups with similar missions. Needy people in communities like Lawrence and Methuen are at the end line of a complex and efficient chain that delivers fresh produce and meats, dry goods and staple foods.
Even many university students have food insecurity. Jonathan Crockett, the coordinator of essential needs at Middlesex Community College, operates a food pantry for students and employees at both the Lowell and Bedford campuses.
“ The Merrimack Valley Food Bank is critical to the existence and success of the two food pantries at Middlesex Community College,” Crockett said. “Since 2017, MVFB has provided tens of thousands of pounds of free frozen, refrigerated and canned/dry food goods for the MCC pantries. These food resources are so important to MCC students who are struggling financially.
“ The staff at MVFB are warm, friendly, hard-working, community- focused and incredibly dedicated,” he added. “ They work tirelessly to meet the significant and ongoing need for food resources in the community. They have always been a tremendous community partner, and I am grateful for all that they provide for Middlesex Community College and for the Greater Lowell community.”
For donors, volunteers and employees of MVFB, the purpose is a noble one, more of a calling than a task. Tony Luna has been working at the warehouse since 2013.
“ I like working here because of the company’s mission,” Luna said. “ I know that the food will wind up with the people who need it. And knowing that so many good people donate time, food and money to keep us going, well, that keeps my batteries charged.”
Aside from corporate donations, MVFB benefits from the general public. Semiannual food drives help fill the shelves. Last year’s drives were canceled due to the pandemic and its associated guidelines about interpersonal interactions.
Tom and Jean Curtis have been part of this ancillary project for four years, volunteering at Cawley Memorial Stadium and Lowell Catholic School events every year.
“ We have the time and are committed to making the world a better place,” Tom Curtis said. “ If everyone does a little, then all the crumbs will come together.”
The Curtises are part of the unsung army of hundreds of volunteers that keep the mission on track.
“ We help at the Cawley food drive and the turnout is quite impressive, tons of food,” he said. “ There are lots of people that give time and money, some more than others, but nobody is measuring. There are a lot of cogs in the wheel.”
The Curtises are retired. They help in all areas of the network, taking in donations, sorting and shelv- ing items, assembling packages for distribution and even loading cars at the community markets, which happen regularly from early July until mid-November. ( To apply for grocery assistance from the community market, or any other location, visit the MVFB website.) “ To see the appreciation on people’s faces when they pick up their food is worth all the effort,” Tom Curtis said.
Another popular revenue and commodity stream is the annual Thanksgiving drive, sponsored by board member Danielle McFadden. A Facebook challenge has been a reliable windfall every year, often garnering about $ 10,000 or more. But 2020 was no normal year. And the 300- 400 people who participated in the latest drive gave more than $ 25,000, exceeding the board’s expectations.
“ It’s a testament to the amazing work they are is doing,” McFadden said of the folks at the MVFB. “ Despite the unique challenges and increased demand, they didn’t skip a beat.”
McFadden, CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, said that during the pandemic, the food bank has reached out to those in quarantine and homebound residents in need of food assistance.
“ They are an incredible organization,” she said. “ They always have a smile, and all believe in the cause. It is a cause that everyone can embrace. No one wants to see people in their community going hungry. I only wish is there was no need for it, an end to hunger.”
As for the future, Mc-Fadden and Pessia hope to find more — and more creative — ways to help more people.
And there is one more thing on their wish list.
“ We would love to find a forever home,” McFadden said. “ We are outgrowing the space.”
Mitsy Walton, 85, of dracut, who has been a volunteer at the Merrimack Valley Food Bank since 2001, shelves items from a YMCA food drive collected in Belvidere.
JULiA MALAKiE / LOWELL SUN
Warehouse workers Danielle Landry and Kiara Velazquez, both of Lowell, unload packs of Mountain dew that needed to be unloaded by hand because they slipped on the pallet jack.
JULiA MALAKiE / LOWELL SUN