The Universal Notebook: Eat, drink and feel guilty

When I go to the supermarket these days (and that’s most days), I often find myself thinking, "How in the world can young families afford to put food on the table?" It seems to me that a typical trip to the market used to cost me $20 to $30. Now I’m spending about $50 a pop, about the same amount it costs to fill up the gas tank.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to eat pretty much what I want, but with the cost of gas and widespread drought driving up food prices many people cannot. I say "lucky," because that’s all it is – luck. The U.S. economy is still struggling to recover from the 2008 financial meltdown and most of us are just one injury, illness, job loss, divorce or bad investment away from hard times.

The Yarmouth Community Food Pantry, which operates out of the basement of First Parish Church, was serving 11 families in 2006. Last year, it served 73. And no, Gov. LePage, we are not talking about deadbeats and welfare cheats. The people being helped are mostly working people who just aren’t paid a living wage.

The members and friends of First Parish try to get in the habit of purchasing one item for the food pantry every time we go grocery shopping. I signed up to buy tuna fish, and I did pretty well for the first few months. But now I’m so far in arrears that I must owe the pantry a whole bluefin tuna.

My friend and fellow congregant Barbara Horton buttonholed me before church a few weeks ago and asked me in her charming but emphatic way to devote one of my columns to the problem of hunger.

"This past winter," Barbara explained, "I learned that Maine is No. 1 in New England and No. 2 or No. 6 in the nation, depending on whose report one reads, for food insecurity. I was shocked and saddened."

So Barbara set a goal for herself of helping to publicize the issue, confident that "once the people of Maine learn the extent of the problem, they will want to help their hungry neighbors."

To that end, Barbara and some of her Sunset Point Road neighbors have organized a giant yard sale on Saturday, Sept. 15, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (rain date Sunday, Sept. 16), the proceeds to benefit Good Shepherd Food Bank. Good Shepherd delivers food to 36,000 people weekly through some 600 church and civic organizations.

How bad is the problem of hunger in Maine? Mark Swann, Donna Yellen and Elena Schmidt, all of whom work on the front line of poverty at Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, contributed an article to the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the Maine Policy Review on "Hunger in Maine." They noted that "45 percent of Maine school children are eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch."

The fact that an estimated 69,000 Maine children aren’t sure when their next meal will be is what really bothered Barbara.

Preble Street itself provides a thousand meals a day in its soup kitchen and groceries to 150 families a week. Swann, Yellen and Schmidt reported that "in 1940 there was one food pantry in southern Maine. … Today there are 80." And there are as many as 450 food pantries statewide. We may be a hungry state, but it’s not as though a lot of good folks aren’t trying to feed their friends and neighbors.

If you go into Portland on a Friday or Saturday evening, however, it’s hard to believe we’re still in recession or that anyone could be going hungry. The lines waiting to get into trendy bistros are almost as long as the lines outside the soup kitchen.

Right now we have an army of social service agencies and volunteers battling hunger with food pantries, soup kitchens, food drives and yard sales, but it seems to me that if we were really serious about solving the problem of hunger in Maine we could do it easily. Add a small sales tax to restaurant meals and I bet we’d generate enough money to feed the hungry and those of us who are overfed might feel a little better about indulging our appetites and our pocketbooks.