Shoppers at Gloucester's Market Basket supermarket nearly doubled down on their holiday generosity this past weekend.

A food collection drive outside Market Basket and heading into this week's celebration of Thanksgiving generated 9,120 pounds of canned and boxed food items, close to 70 percent more than the 5,600 pounds collected at the same location last year, The Open Door Executive Director Julie LaFontaine said Monday.

And that bounty of generosity carried The Open Door's drive Saturday to a record 24,320 pounds of food at five North Shore locations, more than 2 1/2 tons above last year's totals reeled in at sites from Gloucester to Ipswich.

The Open Door runs two food pantries, on Emerson Avenue in Gloucester and Southern Heights in Ipswich, which serve families in Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, Manchester, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham, Rowley, Boxford and Topsfield.

The drive at Market Basket was helped in terms of visibility by Gloucester police officers, who volunteered to help collect items. That portion of the project was billed as a "Stuff the Cruiser" drive and found shoppers eager to do precisely that, LaFontaine said. The officers' involvement in the drive marked a first-time effort and was directed by police Lt. Jeremiah Nicastro.

"People really responded (to the cruisers on site)," said LaFontaine.

In addition to collecting food items for The Open Door, officers handedv out their own baseball-style trading cards to youngsters, who can win prizes by collecting them at their schools and elsewhere.

"People were coming out with bags of food, in some cases even whole carts, to donate," LaFontaine said. "It really was a reflection for a community that cares for its own, and that's what our community is."

LaFontaine noted that the collections did not include large-scale Thanksgiving items such as turkeys, but rather canned foods such as tuna and chicken, hearty soups, fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, healthy snack items, 100% juice and juice boxes and breakfast cereals.

"We don't collect items like turkeys and stuffing; we have already secured those holiday items from other donors," LaFontaine said. "But these items give us the chance to fill out our shelves after the holiday time is settled.

In 2018, The Open Door said its programs provided 1.98 million pounds of food to 7,986 people representing 3,581 unique households.

The Gloucester food pantry provided 1,265,015 pounds of canned goods, fresh produce, meats, bread, dairy products, and eggs to 2,294 households during 30,802 visits representing 5,464 people, according to The Open Door.  Its Ipswich Community Food Pantry provided 179,907 pounds of canned goods, fresh produce, meats, bread, dairy products, and eggs to households during 6,895 visits representing 746 people from 377 households.

"The Open Door is really a household stability organization," LaFontaine added. "It helps people make it through the next step when something happens. It's part of that safety net that keeps people stable, and the success of a drive like this really is a testament to the community and how the people here care for one another."

Other collections Saturday were carried out at the Stop & Shop off Bass Avenue and Thatcher Road in Gloucester, Shaw's supermarkets on Eastern Avenue in Gloucester and Route 133 in Ipswich, and at the Market Basket store along Route 133 in Rowley. 

The Ipswich Police Department also donated one of its cruisers for the third straight year as part of the drive at the Ipswich Shaw's, LaFontaine said, while volunteers from the Ipswich YMCA assisted in collecting food items at the Market Basket in Rowley.

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.

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