Q & A with Lesley Ridge, Community Engagement Manager

June 2023

With Spring in full swing and summer barbeques ramping up, it is important to remember that the need for food in Maine never stops. Since 1986, Wayside Food Programs in Portland have dedicated themselves to providing people in Southern Maine access to nutritious food. Their programs include nine free weekly Community Meals, four Mobile Food Pantries, Kids’ Healthy Snacks program, and their Food Rescue Program, which salvages edible food from wholesalers and retailers and redistributes it across Southern Maine. You might also know Wayside from their partnership with United Way for the Annual United We CAN Sculpture Contest.

UCU Community Engagement Manager Lesley Ridge is a longtime volunteer with Wayside’s Community Garden and Kitchen, as a way to combine two of her passions – gardening and community service.

We caught up with Lesley to learn more about Wayside Food Services and her experience cultivating and maintaining Wayside’s seven raised-bed gardens.

How did you become involved with Wayside Food Programs and their Community Garden?

The Wayside Community Garden is just one of the ways that Wayside is providing hunger relief efforts. Everything that is grown in the garden goes directly to the community kitchen.  It is also a part of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Harvest for Hunger Network, which encourages gardeners to grow extra to donate to local food pantries.

I started volunteering in the garden about three years ago before I even became a Community Engagement Manager at UCU. I work with Laura Hamilton, a Wayside employee and creator of the garden. Together we  plant, maintain, and harvest the flowers, fruits, herbs, and vegetables that are grown.

I volunteer every Thursday morning for a few hours and occasionally will drop by to water or tend to on other days of the week. I’m told I’m the longest running garden volunteer!

What is grown in the garden, and what is your role in maintaining it?

Every April I plant seedlings or transplants that myself other others donate and tend until harvest time in October! Soon it will be time to harvest the strawberries, which will help the Community Meal and Mobile Food Pantry programs make a strawberry dessert! In the fall, I volunteer during the Thanksgiving season to help prepare delicious thanksgiving meals.

What has been the most rewarding part of your volunteering so far?

The most rewarding part for me is knowing that I am making an impact on people experiencing hunger every time I volunteer. Wayside has a special feel and is a place that I look forward to visiting every week. Since my very first day, I have felt welcomed and appreciated by Wayside staff and Mary Zwolinksi, the Executive Director. There is a community within Wayside, and I am proud to be a part of it.

Beyond addressing food insecurity, how else does Wayside Food Programs help Cumberland County residents?

Wayside’s location on Walton Street in Portland, their proximity to other local businesses, and their relationships with partners, has enabled them to help create a community and raise awareness about the issue of food insecurity. 

In 2022, Wayside provided 20,500 shared meals to community members, where people not only got to eat a well-balanced and nutritious meal, but also got to make new friends. Additionally, 63,000 pounds of locally grown and produced food were donated from over 30 local farms and food donors.

If someone is interested in volunteering with Wayside or in their Community Garden, where should they start?

Wayside recognizes that not everyone can take time to volunteer. Donations of food, seedlings or cash are also welcome. Anyone interested in volunteering  should contact Wayside to learn more: https://waysidemaine.org/volunteer-wayside

Here For U: Lesley Ridge

Lesley Ridge is one of UCU’s Community Engagement Managers. Lesley grew up in the Gardiner, ME area and currently lives in Portland, ME. After graduating from the University of Southern Maine, she loved the southern Maine area so much she stayed! She holds a Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree in Business Management from USM, and a Certificate in Professional Human Resources (PHR).

When Lesley is not busy at work as a Community Engagement Manager, she enjoys building perennial flower gardens, Zumba/Fitness classes, being a Boston Sports Fan, all things British (Mum was from England), and walking and running fitness trails in the Southern Maine Area. She resides in Portland with her husband Bob, and has two adult children Brittany and Bobby.