Hunger on the Rise in Maine as Congress Considers Food Program Cuts

Hunger is on the rise in Maine. Over 200,000 Mainers are unsure where their next meal is coming from–the sixth-highest hunger rate in the nation, federal statistics indicate. In Portland today, USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, Mayor Michael Brennan, and hunger advocates held a press conference to draw attention to the problem–and to the concern that benefits for the hungry will be slashed in the new farm bill now before Congress.

First, the good news. A federal nutrition program that provides summer meals to kids will not be cut under the farm bill, and there’s funding ready for the taking. The bad news? "Summertime is the time of year in which a Maine child is much more likely to go hungry," says USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.

Concannon says during the school year, 21 million children across the country get free or reduced price lunches. In the summer, that number dips to just 3 million because of a lack of access. "We’re reaching out to any not-for-profit organizations, any of the religious groups, any of the municipal organizations, to help us on summer feeding," he says. "It is the biggest single gap we have right now."

While summer food programs for kids may be underused, food pantries and soup kitchens are not. Take Preble Street Resource Center, a Portland-based organization that serves the homeless and hungry. Last April, they served a milestone 1,000 meals in one day. Now, that number is standard. This past June, they served 1,200 meals every day.

Preble Street’s Donna Yellen says it follows the trend of recent years. She says in 2010 the number of people served by southern Maine food pantries jumped 42 percent. In 2012? "We are just starting to collect new data for that, and so far it’s looking like it has risen another, on average, 20 percent."

Despite the rise in hunger, Yellen does see a solution: "The food pantries do great work throughout our communities in Maine, and they’re doing the best they can. But the true answer to hunger is having those food supplement benefits to be able to go feed your child at home."

Those food benefits she’s talking about are food stamps, or SNAP–the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But Yellen and others, like USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, are worried the program will be weakened under a farm bill being considered by Congress.

Concannon says one group that could suffer from cuts are seniors "who may have worked all their life, who may have saved a modest amount of money. They would be found ineligible if they had more than $5,000, for example, in a bank account or in an asset–a vehicle. And we worry about that in places like Maine."

U.S. House Republicans who support the cuts say they’re needed to close loopholes and get food stamp spending under control. But Concannon says those who use SNAP help spur the economy by spending their assistance in grocery stores and farmers markets.

There are potential health benefit as well–just ask Dee Clarke. Clarke has a job, but says her paycheck isn’t enough to cover food bills. She says she used to get relief from a local food pantry, but affording enough healthy food was out of reach. "You know, pasta and cheese is really fattening, but it’s also very cheap," she says.

Clarke struggled with weight and high blood pressure. Then, about a year ago, she realized she qualified for food stamps. She says it’s made a huge difference in her health. "I’ve lost a significant amount of weight, and I don’t take blood pressure medicine anymore," she says.

Patty Wight: "And you owe that to this program?

Dee Clarke: "Absolutely–being able to access healthy food."

The U.S. Senate passed a more moderate version of the farm bill last month, which Under Secretary Concannon supports. It’s unclear when the House of Representatives will take up its version of the farm bill. Both Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud say they do not support gutting the food stamp program.