A two-man volunteer operation that provides a lot of food to senior citizens, struggling veterans and others who need help began by accident 10 years ago.
Stuart McNeil, of Andover, used to go to the Stop & Shop on Route 114, pick up food that was nearing the end of its shelf life and bring it to the Andover Community Coffee on Saturdays.
One day Dom Mondi, manager of the supermarket, told McNeil he had a large quantity of food that was off the shelves – but still safe for human consumption – and he didn't know what to do with it.
McNeil had an idea. Why not bring it to New England Liberty House in Lawrence, a home for veterans, as well as to elderly people trying to get by on limited incomes?
McNeil enlisted his friend John Tierney of North Andover and the Accidental Food Bank was born. Nowadays they go to the local Stop & Shop, as well as its sister stores in North Reading and Andover, several times a week and pick up the edibles that have been removed from the shelves.
They deliver them to senior centers and other places where the need is great.
"This food would get thrown out if we didn't take it," said Tierney, a former NASCAR driver who worked as a collection agent for the Laborers' International Union before he retired.
The food he and McNeil distribute is non-perishable, he noted – soups, pasta, sauces, canned seafood, cereal, cookies and crackers to name a few items.
"We are concentrated on helping seniors," said McNeil, who owned an advertising firm before he retired.
"I've had people come up to me and say they couldn't afford to buy the food they receive at the senior center," said Irene O'Brien, director of the North Andover Senior Center.
Both O'Brien and McNeil pointed out that many senior citizens have to make do with Social Security checks.
"These guys (Tierney and McNeil) have ramped up our volume (of food)," said Cahla Ahlstrom, outreach manager at the center. The large volume presents a logistics challenge, she noted, because she and other staffers have to make sure that what they distribute has not passed the expiration date.
McNeil and Tierney also feed people at 17 other organizations, including the Lawrence Senior Center, the House of Mercy homeless shelter in that city, We Care Charity in Salem, New Hampshire and New England Liberty House.
They estimate that 24,000 Merrimack Valley residents benefit from the Accidental Food Bank. Tierney placed the value of their largesse at $1.5 million per year.
"We're giving back to the community because the community needs it," Tierney said.