SACO – By the time Eleanor Locey pays her bills, there’s not enough money left over for food.
She relies on Social Security but her income is too high to qualify for food stamps. So once a month the 77-year-old retired bus assistant drives to the Saco Food Pantry to load her trunk with the groceries she needs to feed herself and her disabled son.
“As a senior citizen, I don’t make enough money to pull me through,” Locey said last week after selecting enough food for 24 meals from the pantry shelves and freezers.
Locey finds herself in a growing group of seniors and working families turning to southern Maine food pantries and soup kitchens for help, often for the first time. Despite new records set in the stock market and other signs the economy is recovering from the recession, the number of Mainers unable to feed their families continues to rise, according to the agencies trying to feed them.
“They’re seeing more families, more children and more seniors coming through their doors. The face of hunger today is much different than before the recession in 2008,” said Clara McConnell Whitney, communications and advocacy manager for Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which last year supplied 13 million pounds of food to food pantries and soup kitchens in Maine.
“People are talking about how the economy is turning around, but the people for whom the economy is turning around are not the people we’re seeing at food pantries. It hasn’t trickled down to that level yet.”
Last year, for example, the York County Shelter Programs saw a 38 percent jump in the number of people seeking food assistance. People came from 28 of the county’s 29 towns and cities, according to the agency.
Across the state, the need for assistance from food pantries and meal programs continues to be “unrelentingly high,” Whitney said.
A variety of factors — lower wages, unemployment, cuts in benefits — drive people to seek food assistance, straining pantries and food programs that have long struggled to keep up with demand. Many of those people are from middle income backgrounds but have seen their incomes slashed by unemployment or reductions in work hours and pay and are running out of savings.
About 26,000 people in York County — or 13 percent of the population — don’t have access to enough food to ensure adequate nutrition, a situation referred to as “food insecurity” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The need for help is evident in the number of Mainers qualifying for food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A record 252,000 Mainers relied on the federally funded food aid during an average month in 2012, a 56 percent increase from before the recession in 2007.
However, many of the people now flowing into food pantries earn too much to qualify for food stamps.
Of the nearly 90,000 people in Maine’s 1st Congressional District who are considered food insecure by the federal government, 61 percent have an income high enough that they don’t qualify for food stamps. Someone who is food insecure has a limited or uncertain supply of food.
Nationwide, 17.2 million households — that’s one in seven people — are facing hunger, the highest number of food insecure Americans ever recorded, according to the World Hunger Education Service.
“We see people who have worked their entire lives, who were living the American dream, who are now struggling,” said Carol Davis, president of the Old Orchard Beach Community Food Pantry. “These are not the traditional poor people. These are people who want to work and support their families but can’t find the jobs.”
Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said there is a disconnect between the stock market being up and what the person on the street is experiencing.
“If you were poor before the recession, you’re still poor now,” he said. “If you were middle income before the recession, chances are your wages are down. Those folks aren’t likely to be in a better position for a couple of years.”
‘THERE TENDS TO BE TEARS’
While Locey filled a cart with groceries at the Saco Food Pantry last week, a steady stream of people came through the door. A young mother arrived for the first time, her daughter in tow. A couple selected frozen and canned goods for their family of four. Volunteers say some of their clients are homeless and live in cars.
The number of people who use the Saco pantry has steadily increased in recent years, from about 6,100 in 2006 to more than 9,500 last year, said Bob Nichols, who has helped run the pantry since 1996. The pantry recorded its busiest month ever last November when it fed 914 people.
The nearby Old Orchard Beach Community Food Pantry, open since November, serves about 250 families. Davis, who helps run the organization, said clients need not only food, but toiletries and household items that aren’t covered by food stamps. Most people don’t come in unless they really need the help, she said.
“We’re seeing a lot of people we believe have not used a food pantry before. We’re seeing people who very much needed a food pantry but were resisting it,” she said.
Families and seniors are showing up more frequently at soup kitchens in Saco, Biddeford and Sanford. The Saco Meals Program gave out 879 meals to 474 people in February from its kitchen at Most Holy Trinity Church. The Always Enough food pantry in Sanford has served up to 80 people a night in recent months, including a growing number of families, said director Sherry Tysver.
The countywide need for food assistance is especially evident at the York County Shelter Programs in Alfred, where the food pantry is open to all residents of the county. Last year, people came from every town in the county except Ogunquit.
In fiscal year 2012, the pantry saw a 38 percent increase over the previous year in the number of people who came for boxes of food.
“Our major increase in that 38 percent was seniors and working poor,” said Joan Sylvester, the shelter programs’ community coordinator. “Most people who come in for the first time apologize and say there’s someone worse off than them. There tends to be tears. It just breaks your heart.”
Carol Cail, the treasurer of the Sanford Food Pantry, said she also often sees tears from people who have found themselves at the pantry asking for help.
“They’ve gotten to this point and they never thought they would,” she said.
The historic number of needy families who stream into soup kitchens and food pantries is not limited to York County.
In Portland, Preble Street serves 1,100 meals a day on average, a record for the agency.
At Brunswick-based Midcoast Hunger Prevention, which serves seven surrounding communities, Executive Director Karen Parker said many of the new families seeking help have been driven closer to the financial brink by the tough economic times. Last year the pantry served 1,155 families, 438 of them for the first time. That’s up from 1,035 households in 2011.
“People are just barely getting by,” Parker said. “They have to make really hard choices.”
‘TOO PROUD TO ASK’
Two years ago, organizations that focus on poverty and hunger issues began to hear reports of more people showing up at food pantries than ever. Most were new people saying they never thought they’d be there. At the same time, people who had been accessing emergency food sources continued to do so, said Kristine Jenkins, coordinating director of Partners for a Hunger Free York County, the coalition formed to bring together individuals and organizations to address the growing problem.
Jenkins said it is essential for people working on the front lines of poverty and hunger issues to address immediate needs while also looking at long-term solutions. Most importantly, the solutions to ending hunger must come from the community, she said.
As the Partners for a Hunger Free York County began working with the various people and organizations trying to eradicate hunger, Jenkins said senior citizens emerged as an especially vulnerable population. Seniors are struggling to balance skyrocketing health costs, cuts in heating assistance and other financial pressure, she said.
Maine ranks 17th in the country and first in New England in terms of the percentage of seniors facing hunger. A third of people in the state on Social Security rely on their benefit for all of their income, according to the AARP.
Many of the seniors who go to food pantries are caring for grandchildren or adult disabled children, Jenkins said. She has heard many stories of seniors who have come to consider fresh fruits and vegetables a luxury.
“These people feel vulnerable and they’re less likely to reach out for help,” Jenkins said. “A lot of older Americans are eligible (for assistance like food stamps) but either don’t know it or are too proud to ask.”
Partners for a Hunger Free York County has focused on helping seniors by supporting programs that provide farm shares and credit at farmers markets. The Good Shepherd Food-Bank has a mobile unit that distributes food to seniors in the county free of charge. The hunger coalition also is working to identify seniors who are struggling and get them the help they need, something Jenkins said is hard for many people to ask for.
Locey, the Saco woman who uses a local food pantry, clearly remembers how difficult it was to ask for help with food for the first time two years ago. Over time it’s become easier to walk through the door each month.
“That first day was horrible. It seems like a part of you goes,” she said, but “I’m thankful I can come here.”
Matt Byrne contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315, firstname.lastname@example.org or through Twitter@grahamgillian200,000