More work needed to combat hunger in Maine

PORTLAND-One recent morning, a mother took her two young boys out for breakfast and "chose" the busiest place in town.

Seventy-nine people were already standing in line, 220 more followed. It was cold and drizzly, and the boys huddled next to their mom, waiting at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen door.

Heroic work happens every day all over Maine to fight hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens, most all-volunteer, form a network of neighbors helping neighbors. Grass roots efforts, crowded into church basements or town halls, work largely unheralded to provide a safety net for families. Recently these emergency programs have been staggered by increased need.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 2003 and 2007 the number of Maine residents that couldn’t afford enough food grew 40 percent. More than half of Maine children who receive free or reduced-priced lunches do not receive school breakfasts.

In 1985 Preble Street served 35 people at our breakfast soup kitchen. In 2003 we averaged 200. Now 300 hungry children and adults line up every morning.

Thirty years ago, if you were working full time, you weren’t necessarily rich, but you certainly weren’t going hungry. Hunger was practically nonexistent. That’s not the case today.

High food prices and skyrocketing unemployment continue to make things worse.

But it isn’t hopeless. It hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Last winter, in partnership with United Way of Greater Portland, we raised close to $300,000 for Maine food pantries. But we know from talking to emergency food providers, we need to do more.

Neighbors, elected leaders, faith communities, and service organizations can join together to get more food to Maine’s hungry.

Driven by the needs of our neighbors and a belief in our heritage of working together to solve problems, Preble Street has created the Maine Hunger Initiative.

Our goal is to relieve hunger and address the systemic problems that cause hunger. We need to identify and eliminate the obstacles that stand in the way of efficient food procurement, transportation and access. We must also focus on changing public policy so that food insecurity will not threaten Maine people.

The Maine Hunger Initiative has three components: Direct service, analysis and advocacy.

We are working to expand food programs that have existed at Preble Street since 1981 to extend food pantry services and provide a three-meal-a-day soup kitchen for women at Florence House.

We are also evaluating Maine’s emergency food delivery structure to determine what works: Who is not being served? Are basic nutrition elements missing? Is food storage a problem? Can we stretch our dollars further?

Working with local food programs, food banks, farmers, food processors and distributors we will ensure that people have access to healthy, nutritious food while supporting the local economy.

Like Maine’s historic barn-raising tradition, this organizing work will bring together public and private partners to solve urgent problems cooperatively and introduce "best practices" to empower people to move beyond hunger and poverty.

Our advocacy effort, the Maine Hunger Initiative, will substantially strengthen the emergency food system and inform state and national policy that can bring an end to hunger.

While we are determined to make the emergency food system more effective, we also need to advocate for public policy that impacts hunger such as food stamps, nutrition support for women, infants, and children, and school meal programs. Advocacy is a core component of Preble Street’s mission and also the means to change that can end the tragedy of hunger in our communities and our state.

Over the past 30 years Preble Street has been committed to not just meet needs but also create solutions. We provide shelter to our homeless neighbors at the same time we strive to end chronic homelessness. We are devoted to feeding our hungry neighbors at the same time we work to end hunger.

In an economic maelstrom that spared no one, especially those who were already on the edge, we cannot just concentrate on feeding people in longer lines at soup kitchens and food pantries. Instead we must use all the strategies we know can work — advocacy, best practices, and wide-based community collaboration — to bring an end to hunger in Maine.

It is possible. Preble Street and its partners are committed to it; and our poor and hungry citizens depend on it.