PORTLAND – On Tuesday night, 452 people stood in line for their dinner at Preble Street — more than twice the number who gathered hours later to call for an end to hunger in the United States.
For Donna Yellen, director of the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, those numbers are telling. More than 200,000 Mainers struggle with food insecurity and nearly a quarter of the children in the state are hungry — statistics that she says are staggering and should serve as a call to action.
"We’re all embarrassed that one in four Maine children is hungry," Yellen said. "The old way of feeding people is not working, so we need to change the conversation to be about solutions."
The Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative aimed to jump-start that conversation Tuesday by hosting the Portland premiere of "A Place at the Table," a 2011 selection of the Sundance Film Festival. The film tells the stories of Americans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and lays out concrete steps to build a nation where everyone has access to affordable and nutritious food.
Between two showings of the film at the Nickelodeon theater, a panel discussion highlighted the hunger issue in Maine and encouraged people to engage in a call to action by tweeting and contacting state and federal lawmakers. Experts said the solution comes not through emergency food distribution, but through changes to government programs.
"The solution needs to be systemic. It can’t just be these stopgap measures," said Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners. She encouraged people to write to legislators to ask them to oppose cuts to General Assistance in the proposed state budget, and to ask the state’s congressional delegation to push for full reinstatement of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the federal farm bill.
Dee Clarke, an activist in Portland who in the past struggled to feed her family, participated in the panel discussion. She said that while she was grateful to receive assistance from food pantries and soup kitchens, "it’s a lousy solution."
Families need support that allows them to get to the point where they can provide healthy food for their children around their own table, she said.
Clarke said showing the film and starting a conversation about solutions goes a long way toward showing people that hunger is a very real problem.
"I think a large group of people have no clue," she said. "They expect someone in poverty to look a certain way, to talk a certain way."
Mark Lapping, a professor of planning and public policy at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, said more Mainers are struggling with hunger as the state loses manufacturing jobs and food prices rise.
People who once donated to or volunteered at food pantries now are standing in line, he said, while others give up food to pay fuel and medical bills.
Claire Schroeder of Portland said the film captured a sense of urgency to deal with hunger, which she feels starts with education.
"It’s a pretty significant issue and I don’t think there’s a lot of awareness around it," she said. "It’s an issue but it’s invisible."
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @grahamgillian