Giving is bountiful for Portland food pantry

The United Way of Greater Portland wrapped up a food pantry project with Preble Street with better-than-expected results, collecting donations that provided needy people with 23,200 meals.

The two organizations more than doubled their expected contributions, receiving 860 boxes of food instead of an anticipated 400 boxes, with each box supplying about 27 meals.

Elena Schmidt, director of development for Preble Street, said the food drive offered a way for people to help families get through tough economic times, so they don’t have to choose between food and paying for medicine, rent or heating fuel.

"We have an enormous amount of people who depend on these donations," Schmidt said. "Thousands of our neighbors live in severe poverty. More and more are struggling to make ends meet."

Schmidt said the number of people using the food pantry has increased by 15 percent to 30 percent over the past five years. The pantry distributed about 190,764 meals last year, and 15,219 in the last month.

Preble Street is a nonprofit organization that works to prevent homelessness and poverty.

The food pantry program, now in its second year, began when special boxes and shelving were delivered to 22 companies in the Portland area last December. Participating companies, including Unum, TD Bank and MaineHealth, encouraged their employees to donate. The drive ended in June.

Mary Beltrante, senior vice president of marketing and communication for United Way, said the donations reflect a desire among the companies’ employes to help those in need.

"The fact that we exceed our goal by over 100 percent shows that people are aware that others are going without," Beltrante said. "The volunteers are seeing faces of people they never saw before, and a whole lot of a new demographic, particularly at the food pantries."

The demand for food is increasing at pantries and soup kitchens across the state, with some operations experiencing a 42 percent increase in demand.

"The need seems to be on the rise and increasing steadily," said John Shoos, senior vice president for community development at United Way. "We want to raise awareness. We also need to look at long-term issues that will help people address food insecurity over the long haul."

United Way formed a task force in January to look at food insecurity in Cumberland County. The 40-member panel is developing strategies to address the issue of hunger in Maine.

Shoos said a draft report is expected in October.

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: