Even 'rich' area in Maine hit by hunger, report says

PORTLAND – Cumberland County may be well known as Maine’s most affluent county, but it has plenty of residents who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, according to a new report.

The Campaign to Promote Food Security in Cumberland County is scheduled to release its report today after a yearlong study. It says the recession has dramatically increased the number of Cumberland County residents who aren’t sure they can put food on the table, or skip meals because they run out of money.

Demand is up for food pantries and government food supplements, but agencies estimate there was still an unmet need of about 5 million pounds of food countywide last year.

"People are just becoming aware," said David Plimpton, a lawyer from Cape Elizabeth and a co-chair of the campaign. "People talk about the economy and loss of jobs, underemployment and low wages. But we’re just figuring out the impact. There’s been so much talk about health care and foreclosures, but food isn’t discussed."

Leaders of the coalition are proposing a list of new anti-hunger efforts, to be led by a new Cumberland County Food Access Council.

The campaign was created a year ago with a $48,000 grant from TD Bank, one of the partners in the study. The Muskie School of Public Service, Preble Street and the United Way of Greater Portland were among 60 nonprofits, businesses and public agencies that participated in the effort.

Leaders of the study call it a "hidden crisis" because of the perception that poverty and hunger are problems in northern and eastern Maine, not in Cumberland County.

"We’ve been hearing about the pantry needs (for more food) for a couple of years now. But documenting it just brings it to the forefront," said John Shoos, a senior vice president of the United Way. "It’s surprising to see the need, the very low food security here."

Among the report’s findings about Cumberland County:

• Applications for General Assistance, which helps pay for food and other basic needs, increased 27 percent in the most recent fiscal year.

• The number of residents receiving federal food supplements, or food stamps, increased 37 percent from January 2008 to January 2010. The statewide increase was 30 percent.

• More than 80 percent of food pantries reported that they have had to modify services, such as giving out less food or turning clients away, because of excess demand.

• More than 20 percent of the pantries reported that demand doubled or more than doubled in the past year.

Although there is no official measure of hunger at a county level, Maine had the nation’s second-highest rate of very low food security in 2009, according to federal data. Very low food security means someone has gone without food at some point because he or she couldn’t afford it. Only Alabama had a higher rate.

Leaders of the coalition say the findings show that the existing network of public aid and food pantries is not enough to keep Cumberland County’s residents fed.

"We need to look at this and see if there are some things we can do to be more efficient and more effective," said Michael Brennan, a policy associate at the Muskie school.

A draft of the report also includes 10 pages of goals and recommendations, at least a few of which involve changes in state law.

The coalition also hopes to get federal support through a new law to expand school lunches and make them more nutritious.

"On any given day in Cumberland County, there are roughly 12,000 meals prepared for students who participate in free and reduced-price lunches, and during the summer that drops to 1,700," Brennan said. "We really want to boost the number of (meals) that are available in the summer."


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: