A soon-to-be-released study indicates that a significant number of working families in Maine are reliant on soup kitchens and food pantries to meet their nutritional needs. The study of hundreds of families using food pantries in Cumberland County was undertaken by the Portland-based non-profit Preble Street.
“Forty-two percent of the households we surveyed were working families. For 90 percent of them, food pantries were a primary source of food,” says Donna Yellen, a social worker at the Portland-based non-profit Preble Street, which recently surveyed more than 700 families in 38 food pantries across Cumberland County.
“For these families hunger is a continual concern,” Yellen says. “Sixty-five percent of them have to reduce the portion of a meal, or skip meals entirely, because they don’t have enough money for food.”
And more disturbingly, says Yellen, 72 percent of the working people surveyed worry about running out of food before they have money to buy food again. “The other piece that was surprising was that the number one concern repeatedly mentioned about why people are on these food pantry lines was because they were using their money for medicine.”
Yellen says one in four of those Mainers with hunger concerns were unaware that they may be entitled to federal aid under the supplemental food nutritional assistance program, known as SNAP. “There’s a lot of stigma, a lot of not understanding about the federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, that we need to educate our neighbors about so that they do apply,” she says.
“There are specific things we can do to ensure that people who are suffering from the economic downturn don’t suffer any more than they need to, and that includes maximizing available federal resources,” says Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy–or MECEP–a progressive policy research group.
A forthcoming report by MECEP shows thousands of Maine children are going without the free or discounted lunches they’re entitled to during the summer months under the federal Summer Food Service Program.
“We currently receive about $1.1 million in federal assistance to support that program. If we were to maximize the utilization of that program we probably would draw down another $10 million,” Martin says.
Both Martin and Preble Street’s Donna Yellen were among the speakers talking about hunger issues at the annual breakfast of the Maine Council of Churches, a member of the Maine Hunger Initiative.
Attendees heard that Maine has the 6th highest rate of hunger in nation, with 200,000 people defined as “food insecure.”
“Food insecurity is not having adequate access to food at all times during the month,” says Max Finberg, the keynote speaker at the event. He’s director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
“We don’t have people starving, we don’t have people who are clinically malnourished in the way they are in the Horn of Africa, but what we do have is people who are forced to skip meals because they don’t have enough money,” Finberg says.
All of which means, in effect, that enough Mainers to populate the state’s six largest cities are getting no more than two-thirds of the calories they should be consuming every day.