Coalition looking to fill more Mainers' plates

Six nonprofits are teaming up to expand food supplies to hungry Mainers and reverse the rise in the rate of people struggling to feed their families.

Leaders of the coalition, called the Maine Hunger Initiative, hope to generate more funding and food donations for pantries, which are facing increasing demand. They also plan to push for statewide policies and legislation to reduce hunger and the poverty that causes it.

"Maine has not had any statewide, concentrated advocacy around the issue of hunger," said Donna Yellen, advocacy director for Preble Street, a Portland-based nonprofit.

Yellen is now also director of the Maine Hunger Initiative, a partnership of Preble Street, the AARP of Maine, the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the Maine Council of Churches, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Muskie School of Public Service.

Members of the new coalition were behind a recent study that showed a dramatic increase in the number of Cumberland County residents who struggle to put food on the table or skip meals because they run out of money.

The report said more than 20 percent of the county’s food pantries saw demand double in the past year, and more than 80 percent had to modify services, such as giving out less food or turning clients away, because of excess demand.

That report led to two initial legislative proposals that the coalition is supporting. One bill would increase summer meal programs for school-age children, and the other would provide a tax credit for farmers who donate to emergency food programs.

The increase in hunger in Cumberland County, Maine’s most affluent county, is reflected across the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 195,000 Mainers — nearly 15 percent of the state’s households — struggled with food insecurity in the period from 2007 to 2009. "Food insecurity" is defined as having difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for one’s family.

Maine’s food insecurity rate was slightly higher than the national average. The state has one of the nation’s highest rates of very low food security, according to the Maine Hunger Initiative. "Very low food security" is defined as periodically going without food.

Maine’s food insecurity rates have been rising faster than the national average, according to the USDA.

Preble Street has seen that increase at its soup kitchen in downtown Portland and at the food pantries it works with in southern Maine, Yellen said.

"We’ve seen the longer lines (of hungry people) and the decreasing food," she said.

More than 1,000 people in Cumberland County now go to food pantries each week so they and their families won’t go hungry, she said.

Cash donations to buy food for the pantries have dropped during the recession, and supermarkets have become much more efficient and have less excess food to donate, say Yellen and others.

"You can talk to any of the food pantries in the area. Everybody says the same thing. It’s just a matter of getting the food," said Paul Hutchinson, who runs a food pantry at the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church on Allen Avenue in Portland.

The pantry opened a little more than a year ago and serves 100 or more families every Thursday morning, he said.

Food pantries are generally reporting a 30 percent to 50 percent increase in people asking for help in the past year, said Christine Force, director of development for the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, an Auburn-based nonprofit that supplies food pantries and soup kitchens around the state.

"What they’re seeing are those people trying to keep two jobs going and meeting all their needs for heat and everything else. They have to make some hard decisions," Force said. "We’re seeing more of the working poor."

Some Mainers, especially the elderly, are less likely to seek help, whether through federal food supplements or from soup kitchens, according to local agencies.

Wayside, a Portland-based nonprofit, is providing meals in five locations around the city, and will soon add a sixth, to reach seniors and families with children, said Susan Violet, its executive director. Wayside also has mobile food pantries to get food to seniors and disabled adults.

"We’re filling gaps," she said. "We’re finding lots of demand."

Families that receive federal food supplements often need more help.

"We’ve got kids, and food stamps don’t last through the whole month," said Jason Fudge, who lives in Portland with his girlfriend and their two daughters, 6 and 4 years old.

Fudge, who used to work as a truck driver, said he has been out of work with a back injury and recently had surgery.

The family receives $600 a month in food supplements, he said. Once that is spent, they turn to food pantries and soup kitchens to feed themselves and their girls.

"You just got to know all the different resources out there," Fudge said. "If you plan it right, you can make it" through the month.

"When I run out of milk, we mix the (dried) milk for the girls," said his girlfriend, Beth Brown. "I don’t like it, but the kids don’t mind it."

Living in downtown Portland makes it less difficult for his family than for some, Fudge said. "If you don’t have a vehicle and you live in those rural areas, it’s pretty hard on them."

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