Maine Voices: Bountiful tables not enjoyed by all

PORTLAND – Thanksgiving is a busy time at Preble Street, as at many homes across this country. Families and friends gather to catch up, share stories and build new histories together.

And to eat. Food is a central part of Thanksgiving, ingrained in our cultural understanding of the holiday. For many Maine families, however, this emphasis on a bountiful table is a sad reminder of just how hungry they are.

Recently the USDA announced that Maine ranks a dismal second in the nation for very low food security (government speak for hunger).

One out of seven Mainers experiences hunger. This statistic may be shocking, but we see it every day with long lines of people waiting for food.

Preble Street will serve or distribute 500,000 meals this year at our soup kitchens and food pantries.

In 1980, there were seven food pantries in southern Maine. Today there are 80. Food pantries in Cumberland County saw an average 42 percent increase in clients served last year, and 21 percent of them report more than a 100 percent increase.

What can be done to end hunger in Maine?

There is no one solution, but in 2009 Preble Street launched the Maine Hunger Initiative and, with several partners, has made progress and developed recommendations. We are pursuing market-based solutions and public/private partnerships. We need to maximize federal resources as well as strengthen the heroic community-based food pantry and soup kitchen efforts.

This year a Preble Street Farm-to-Pantry effort contracted with nine local farmers to supply fresh food to 35 emergency food pantries. Healthful products like tomatoes, squash and peas — and 3,000 dozen eggs. The farmers were thrilled to be able to do what they do best — grow and sell food — and help their neighbors.

In a novel public/private partnership, Preble Street secured $277,940 in corporate grants and worked with Maine officials to acquire a $1,111,760 Recovery Act emergency food award.

With these funds we provided $100 grocery cards to Hannaford affiliated stores from Kittery to Madawaska, including Shop ‘n Save, Paradis and others for 13,897 of Maine’s poorest families with minor children — all making less than $8,600 annually.

A resourceful and expeditious approach: federal dollars, private matching funds, the poorest families, direct food purchases, cash infusion for the local economy supporting Maine businesses and farmers.

What else works?

Nationally, record numbers of people applied for and received SNAP/ (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly foodstamps). While we often hear public officials and pundits bemoan increased SNAP usage, the program does exactly what it was intended to do — help Americans during difficult economic times. Times like these.

SNAP benefits not only feed hungry people but also keep families from becoming homeless, keep children from getting sick, and allow people to look for jobs instead of waiting in food pantry lines to feed their families.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, SNAP benefits lifted 3.6 million people out of poverty, including Mainers.

Despite this evidence, there is a child nutrition bill in Congress that will cut SNAP benefits by $2.2 billion. We must insist that Congress restore cuts to SNAP.

Another storm lurking on Maine’s horizon is a waiver that allows for consideration of high heating costs in determining SNAP benefits. If this waiver is allowed to expire, 40,000 households, half of which are elderly or disabled people, will see a marked decrease in their SNAP benefits.

And there are still other underutilized federal dollars available to help with nutrition programs. One example is USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which currently serves only 16 percent of the children who are eligible.

And Maine sadly ranks 47th in the nation in utilization of federal nutrition dollars for child-care facilities. We need to get those dollars to Maine.

Maine is made of communities that care about neighbors. We’re inspired to help.

As food pantry lines get longer, so do lines of people working to end hunger. Food justice is central for groups like the Cumberland County Campaign to Promote Food Security, St. Mary’s Health System Lots to Gardens, Cultivating Community, the Maine Council of Churches, and the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Coalition.

Years ago this nation decided to have running water in every community. We decided to eradicate terrible childhood diseases. We decided to establish fire departments so that devastating fires would not destroy entire cities like the 1866 great fire in Portland.

What if we decided to eliminate hunger?

As we gather around tables everywhere on Thanksgiving Day today, let’s give thanks for the food we have and commit to ending hunger in Maine.