Report: Hunger a "Hidden Crisis" in Cumberland County

In the cafeteria of the East End Community School in Portland, students carry lunch trays teeming with food to their tables–beef stew, string cheese, milk, and biscuits. What you don’t see is the fact that about three-quarters of the students qualify for free or discounted lunches. Hunger in Maine is a hidden crisis, according to a new report from a coalition of social service and food assistance providers. And they say the latest statistics show the problem appears to be growing.

“Nearly one in seven Maine households–over 14 percent–has difficulty in accessing adequate food,” says Mike Rayder of TD Bank, who co-chaired a coalition looking for ways to reduce hunger–or “food insecurity”–in Cumberland County.

Children may get square meals at school, but the coalition worries about hunger at home, and during the summer months. “It’s a problem that’s been exacerbated by the great recession and our jobless recovery,” Rayder says.

The federal government ranks Maine the ninth most food insecure state. It’s number two in the percentage of people who have the worst access to food and skip meals–just behind Mississippi.

Maine may not be the poorest state, but its households are particularly susceptible to going hungry, according to members of a coalition that includes the United Way of Greater Portland and the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, which wrote the report.

“The very real truth in Maine is that the prices of our food are very high, and our bills are very high, our utility costs are very high,” says Donna Yellin, a social worker from another coalition member, Preble Street, which provides homeless services.

Yellin says that in Cumberland County alone, more than 13,000 people rely on county food pantries. In the past year, the county’s pantries have seen demand jump by 42 percent.

“Sadly, faced with the dilemma of responding to increased need and decreasing donations in this difficult economy, 82 percent of food pantries have had to turn people away, reduce the amount of food given or close their doors early.”

Developing a loan program for food pantries that need money, and helping pantries put into place cost-saving practices and maximize the use of community volunteers are among the coalition’s recommendations.

The coalition also wants to encourage the distribution of fresh food to families. One way is to move excess produce from farms to food pantries and soup kitchens.

“When a farmer is done harvesting a field, there’s often–there’s always–product left behind,” says
Penny Jordan, of the family-run Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. The farm has trained volunteers who pick vegetables that may be imperfect and not right for retail sales but are perfectly edible.

Jordan says that excess produce, especially during peak season, should be processed and preserved.
“The other thing is incentives, and I hate to sound captialistic but farms also need to ensure that they remain viable businesses.”

Jordan stands behind a coalition recommendation to include introducing legislation that would give farmers a state tax credit for donating products.

The coalition also wants to raise public awareness about food assistance programs. About 18 percent of the state population is on food stamps–one of the highest rates in the country–but Rayder and other coalition members say that more people could use the help.

“We have a lot of senior citizens who have that sort of proud Yankee tradition of not necessarily feeling the need to reach out,” Rayder says.

This is also an issue for children and their families. State Rep. Peter Stucky is a Democrat from Portland who’s part of the coalition. He says he knows of children who received food assistance enrolled in early childhood programs.

“But we know that some of the kids who we knew to be eligible for free or reduced meals weren’t following through when they got to public schools,” Stucky says.

Portland schools are trying to take away any stigma to receiving free-and-reduced-price lunches through some new techology.

At the East End Community School, students carry their trays to a table with two debit-like machines. School Secretary Paula Blowers oversees the process.

“And each one has their own individual number. So they pick up their lunches, go through, punch in their number. No one can tell who’s free, who’s reduced, who’s paid.”

That way, Blowers says, the machines keep track of who is getting food assistance, without making anyone feel out of place.