‘Hunger is all around us’

Holidays in America are centered around food. While many dream for weeks of sugarplums, ham and the perfect table settings, approximately 48 million more are thinking of food in a different light: Will there be enough to go around?

Of those people, 208,000 live here in Maine, which ranks 12th in the nation and first in New England for food insecurity.

In Portland, factors behind hunger include a crippling combination of expensive housing, a growing refugee and asylum population, and the trickle-down effects of recent SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cuts in Augusta.

And that’s where local food pantries and soup kitchens come into the picture.

Kaitlyn Saulle, an adult mental health case manager with Opportunity Alliance, said that her clients often do not receive more than $20-$30 per month in SNAP benefits. That means places like the Project FEED Food Pantry, where she and a client visited last week, are a lifeline.

“A lot of people sacrifice food for other things, like medicine or rent,” Saulle said. “They’ll think, ‘I need X, Y, and Z, so I guess I’m not going to eat this week.’ And that’s awful.”

Each weekday, the Project FEED pantry, located in the basement of Woodfords Congregational Church, provides a week’s worth of food to income-eligible Portland residents and their families. Each family unit may receive such emergency assistance once every three months. The pantry is run entirely by volunteers, and stocked with money and food from grants and donations. For example, students at Catherine McAuley High School donated and prepared 40 turkey dinners for Thanksgiving this year.

Many of Saulle’s clients are local men, born and raised in the area, and are reluctant to ask for help. Some of them previously held professional jobs, and suddenly finding themselves forced to use food pantries was a tough transition. Other clients are elderly and cannot carry their boxes themselves, or do not have transportation. Saulle is glad to accompany them.

“It’s eye-opening to see how caring everyone is,” Saulle said. “It gives you a little bit of hope.”

Pantry volunteer Anne Falk, who completes the intake process with clients, noted that that feeling of hope and empathy goes both ways.

“The people that we assist are always thankful and express that,” Falk said.

Across town, volunteers in royal blue aprons transform the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception’s Guild Hall into a homey dining area each day for lunch. It’s the work of the 75 some-odd volunteers of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, who serve approximately 150 people each day. Bagged meals and pantry items are also an option for those wishing to take a meal to eat later, and donated clothing is available each Friday.

The soup kitchen’s location near Franklin Towers and the foot of Munjoy Hill means that there are many regulars, mainly seniors who cannot cook for themselves or the economically vulnerable, according to volunteer Arthur Ledue Sr.

“These are people working hard to survive,” Ledue said. “They’re not rolling up in a Cadillac to come in and eat.”

One of the most important goals for the volunteers, then, Ledue said, is that no one feels as if they are being judged for needing assistance.

“There’s no litmus test,” Ledue said. “If people are going to come in and sit down and eat, there’s the underlying fact that they need help, emotionally or food-wise.”

This is a philosophy also shared at Preble Street, an organization that, between its Resource Center, Teen Center and Florence House, provides 1,200 meals per day. Preble Street also holds a weekly food pantry, which serves 130-200 families a week.

Donations from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn and local grocery stores provide the bulk of this food, but food drives like the annual Stuff the Bus event can fill the pantry for two to three months, according to communications manager Jaime McLeod. Last year, the event brought in 100,000 pounds of food, including cash donations. Since its inception in 2006, Stuff the Bus has collected over 1 million pounds of food.

“We see the best of people. … We have 5,000 volunteers and we couldn’t do it without those who feel the pull to help their neighbors,” McLeod said. “We see those kids who donate money from their lemonade stands, little old ladies who donate their late husband’s clothes, businesses that give $100,000 and people who give their last $50.”

Many of Preble Street’s clients are homeless or mentally ill, and some are just in a hard spot. Providing food and other essentials to people without first determining whether or not they are “worthy” is often very helpful to clients. Without the burden of wondering where they’ll receive their next meal, clients can focus on getting the help they need to break out of poverty, McLeod said.

De-stigmatization is also a crucial theme for Wayside Food Programs, an organization that branched off of Preble Street in 2010 that provides 13 weekly meals, operates mobile food pantries and a community garden, and distributes supplemental food to local pantries.

“As food insecurity has grown, I believe people have begun to understand that hunger is all around us and it doesn’t look like one thing in particular,” Executive Director Mary Zwolinski said. “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry. … We understand that there are times when people need help accessing enough healthy food for themselves and their families and we’re here to help.”

Zwolinski reported that, like other food resources in the area, Wayside has seen increasing numbers of Portland residents who require assistance. And while local businesses and individuals have been and continue to be generous, especially around the holiday season, continued community support is essential to the program’s success.

“Anyone can donate to food drives or hold them,” Zwolinski said. “We are always looking for certain types of foods — those that are the most healthy for children, like peanut butter, tuna fish, and rice. … And donating cash is always great, whether it’s to us at Wayside, or to a local food pantry.”

Project FEED Volunteer Coordinator Delene Perley echoed this sentiment.

“Hunger is year round,” Perley said. “Our donations in March or June trickle down to almost nothing.”

“Food is always touch and go,” McLeod of Preble Street agreed. McLeod noted that people do tend to think of charities during this time of year, and often volunteer to serve holiday meals, but that donations and volunteers are needed throughout the entire year.

“Generosity around the holidays carries us through much of the year, but we’re still here 365 days a year, seven days a week,” McLeod said.

Still, with dedicated citizens like those at Project FEED, Wayside, St. Vincent de Paul, and Preble Street, there’s certainly a ray of hope for a struggling state.

Gloria Gallant, a longtime volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen, said she is confident in her peers, their work in the city, and the change they hope to bring about.

“Most people really care and want to do for others,” Gallant said, smiling. “If you look for it, the good’s always there.”