Hunger stories come out of hiding

CASCO – The person who worries about being hungry, who doesn’t always have enough food or enough money to pay for food during the entire month – that person could be your neighbor.

It was a neighbor, a resident of Sweden, who stood before the microphone at a recent fundraiser for area food pantries and spoke about something many people would be ashamed to admit.

Teri Johnson spoke about her experiences as one of Maine’s "working poor." Those people who are employed, but struggling to pay for four weeks of food along with monthly bills. These households often go without food for awhile or worry about how to afford the next meal.

"We are not food secure. We are over the income for food stamps. We are working our butts off, and we are still food poor," she said.

"Food is a necessity. Food is expensive," Johnson began, adding, "Food is the need to cure hunger insecurity."

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, 14.9 percent of households in Maine are considered food insecure. That equates to 200,000 people. Maine "ranks 18th in the nation, and first in New England in terms of food insecurity," the research showed.

According to the USDA, food stamps are provided to 18 percent of Mainers. Meanwhile, 36 percent of the people who access food pantries make too much income to qualify for food stamps, according to Feeding America.

Later, Johnson talked about speaking out instead of hiding the problem of hunger.

"God gave me a voice, and I better damn well use it. I am the voice of the working poor. Those people whose pride would have never allowed them to" ask for help or walk into a food pantry, she said.

"Food is a basic need. It gets you through the day. It gives you energy. It makes you healthy," Johnson said.

"If you eat crap in a can, you are going to feel like crap," she said.

"Everything healthy for you is so damn expensive," she said.

Her viewpoint on grocery store prices is correct. According to statistics from the documentary, A Place at the Table, in the past two decades the price of produce has risen by 40 percent while the cost of processed food has dropped by that same percentage. Therefore, most people can more easily afford to eat unhealthy food.

"Help us be the answer. Food is the answer," Johnson continued.

"Happy, healthy empowered people will be the change," she said.

Johnson once served as the assistant director for the Sweden Food Pantry, but stepped down in September 2012. Currently, she is the mother of two daughters who are 20 and 21 years old, and she has one grandson.

Johnson said her family has tried being more food dependent, putting in a garden. But, that did not go so well.

"We raised a garden and planted over 200 tomato plants. Those were affected by blight. The eggplant failed," she said.

"We do have beautiful green peppers and squash," she said.

Teaching people to garden is not necessarily the answer to food insecurity – not everyone is a green thumb, she said.

The difficulties and frustrations of being food insecure were brought to life by another speaker during the Empty Bowl fundraiser. The program manager for Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, Michelle Lamm, had interviewed other clients at the Sweden Food Pantry. She told their stories.

"These are people who are like your family, friends, neighbors or co-workers. The story of hunger is hidden," Lamm said.

Kristin and her husband were evicted from their home after they got behind in rent. The couple is living in a temporary housing situation.

"Every day, Kristin worries that her food will run out before she can get more. She makes sure that her husband and kids eat first," Lamm said.

"She feels ashamed about coming to the food pantry. It causes her emotional pain and shame," she said.

Another woman, Karen, had a stroke that eliminated her ability to be employed. Like Kristin, Karen goes without eating to make sure her children and her husband eat first, Lamm said.

When Connie’s husband died, her household income decreased by half, making it more difficult for her to make ends meet.

"The food from the food pantry lasts a week. She eats the same thing for days. She has to choose between paying for her house or paying for her food. Her car needed mechanical work and she lapsed on her home payment. So her home is in foreclosure," Lamm said.

A woman named Mary said she and her husband haven’t received food stamps for two years, and haven’t reapplied because they anticipate being turned down.

"Food from the pantry lasts two weeks, and they are very thankful for it," Lamm said.

Another food pantry client, Amber, was hit by a drunk driver. Injuries from the accident caused her to be laid off from her job. Unable to work, Amber is homeless and living in her mom’s yard.

As one of the volunteers who help at Sweden Food Pantry, Virginia "Tillia" Durr is familiar with these stories.

"They are authentic, real and often not recognized. Nonviolent voices from people who are trying to survive in this economy are crucial as teaching points for others who do not have the actual experience of living on the edge or within the anxiety of poverty," said Durr, who helped plan events for Hunger Action Month in September.

Another Hunger Action Month organizer, Rob Menezes, served as emcee at the Empty Bowls Fundraiser. Menezes is the Associate Relations Manager for Hannaford in Bridgton.

"Listening to the personal stories really opened my eyes to just how close to home this issue is," said Menezes.

"It is so humbling to know that so many of us are just one crisis away from being food insecure. It was also comforting to know that if me and my loved ones were ever in need we would have the compassion and support of the great community to help see us through," he said.