As temperatures rise, food pantry supplies shrink in Falmouth, Portland and elsewhere

FALMOUTH, Maine — It’s summertime, but the living sure isn’t easy for many people in Falmouth and nearby communities.

More than 260 area families — about 800 individuals — currently rely on donated food and household supplies available for free from the Falmouth Food Pantry. But summer means fewer donations as donors go on vacation and supporting organizations reduce their hours.

Children who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school also risk going hungry during the summer while class is not in session.

In response, the pantry this month launched a “Kids’ Bags” program, which provides a specially selected assortment of canned goods, pasta, cereal, fruit, vegetables, juice, crackers, and other items for needy families with children.

Eighteen families, with a total of 34 school-aged children, are receiving essential goods through the new program.

Clients receive four bags of groceries over July and August. The items come packed in colorful, reusable shopping totes donated by Hannaford Bros.

“One mother burst into tears and said that she didn’t know how she would make it through the summer if we hadn’t provided her family with this extra food,” said Nancy Lightbody, one of the pantry’s four volunteer managers.

The program underscores the increasing need for hunger relief services in greater Portland, and across Maine.

The pantry is now serving 40 more families than it did just two months ago in May, Lightbody said. And the 224 families served in May represented a 78 percent increase over the number served in May 2011.

At the Preble Street Food Pantry in Portland, demand has outpaced supply, said Donna Yellen, director of Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative.

“Overall, donations are just not increasing with the rate of our numbers of people who are hungry and need food assistance,” Yellen said.

“I [recently] saw our shelves as bare as I have ever seen them,” she said. “We literally had no canned vegetables to hand out to the 150 families waiting in line to get their small boxes of food, except for a few cans of pumpkins.”

In Cumberland County, 5,000 households depend on food pantries every month, according to estimates from Preble Street.

In prosperous communities, the problem of hunger may seem surprising, said Jill Fox, another volunteer manager at the Falmouth pantry. But the problem is no less real.

“It’s amazing that people think there aren’t residents in places like Falmouth and Cumberland who are needy,” she said. “The need is growing this summer, every week.”

A study conducted last fall by the Maine Hunger Initiative found that 52 percent of the family representatives who pick up food at Cumberland County food pantries have at least one job.

Statewide, more than 200,000 people are listed as “food insecure,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which ranks Maine as having the sixth-highest rate of hunger in the nation.

At a Wednesday press conference in Portland, Maine native and USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon is scheduled to discuss the importance of providing nutritious food to children, and the availability of food assistance sites including those operated by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“No child should go hungry,” Concannon in a prepared statement. “It’s important that families know when a site is operating in their neighborhood and help spread the word.”

William Hall reports for The Forecaster can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4. Seth Koenig reports for the Bangor Daily News and can be reached at 212-8746. Follow him on Twitter: @sethkoenig.