Study: Majority of food pantry users in Maine have jobs but can’t cover bills

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland social workers, with the help of a university professor, are crunching the numbers on what they say may be the first in-depth study of food pantry users in Maine.

Among the more striking early conclusions, said Donna Yellen, who is spearheading the effort, is the number of working people who still don’t make enough income to afford adequate food.

Community organizers with Preble Street and AmeriCorps Vista volunteers surveyed food pantry recipients in the 24 towns of Cumberland County, representing 700 households and 1,700 people. The questions were presented in seven languages at 38 food pantries, and individuals in the respondent households ranged in age from infancy to 82 years old.

Yellen, director of Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative, said the social workers are working with University of New England Professor of Social Work Tom McLaughlin to analyze the responses they collected. She said they hope to create a better profile of who in southern Maine is relying on food pantries.

The research is taking place during a holiday season, which is when hunger needs are expected to come into greater focus. Preble Street distributed 330 Thanksgiving turkeys through its food pantry over two giveaway dates leading into the holiday, Yellen told the Bangor Daily News.

“As far as this kind of survey is concerned, I’m not aware of any other study being done like this in Maine,” Yellen said. “Now we want to do a little more correlation between the numbers we found. We’re specifically interested in families who are working and the elderly. The numbers are so raw, it feels a little overwhelming. But we want to be able to find some more correlations and put it into a nice package so people can understand it. We hope to be able to educate the Legislature with this information, as well as local elected officials, to help inform us on how to come up with solutions.”

According to Yellen, early reviews of the survey responses indicate that inadequate employment is as much of a hunger trigger in the poor economy as unemployment because people who are working aren’t working enough to keep food on their families’ tables.

She said 52 percent of the family representatives who pick up food at Cumberland County food pantries are working, while 75 percent of those picking up food for families “make difficult decisions not to purchase food in order to cover other essentials such as medications, heating fuel and rent.”

“The biggest numbers are the number of people who are working and families who are working, but who still can’t afford enough food,” she said. “People had been making it by combining two and three part-time jobs to make ends meet, and with the economy, one of those jobs is falling off. So they’re being forced to the food pantries.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists Maine as having the sixth highest rate of hunger in the nation, with more than 200,000 Mainers described as “food insecure,” meaning they have inadequate food to meet their nutritional needs.

Yellen said it was striking to her to learn from the survey responses that food pantry users often are not just occasionally picking up supplemental bags of groceries but rather are battling ever-present worries about hunger.

“I’ve been working in this field for a long time, [and] it was surprising even to me to see the numbers of people who aren’t just worried about food insecurity … [but described] it being a ‘constant’ worry,” she said. “As many as 72 percent identified it as a constant worry. That just threw me.”

Yellen said her staff, volunteers and McLaughlin will spend the next “couple of weeks” cross-referencing the responses collected during the study to identify more trends. With those figures in hand, Preble Street and others will bring the results to local and state lawmakers with hopes of making better informed policy decisions. She said the researchers also will use the data in house with hopes of better meeting the needs of food pantry users.