Hunger crisis in Maine prompts national attention

WESTBROOK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Many kids in Maine, off for the summer, can’t wait to get back to school.

It’s because, for some, it’s the only place they’ll get a reliable meal.

Many Maine adults also rely on a food assistance program called “SNAP,” which the state and Governor LePage are threatening to eliminate.

One of the nation’s leaders in fighting hunger shared his ideas in Westbrook Monday on keeping the community fed.

“To be schooled, you must be well fueled. To be well read, you must be well fed,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, while delivering a message in Westbrook he’s shared across the country. “Eighty percent of the kids who get school lunch on a daily basis don’t get summer meals because you don’t have that captive audience.”

Berg has teamed up with the USDA — and in southern Maine with Preble Street and the Westbrook School system — to ensure nutrition programs retain funding. “When people talk about recovering from the recession and how well the economy’s doing, you know we’ve got a lot of poor kids in Maine that are being left behind and we need to take care of those kids,” Westbrook Democrat Drew Gattine explained. “Maine children are our future. Maine cannot be successful unless we put our kids in a position to be successful and kids can’t learn what it takes to be good citizens, they can’t learn in school unless they show up healthy and fed.”

Gattine and Berg, flanked by leaders from Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center, Westbrook School system and the USDA, said programs around the state are threatened to lose funding. In mid-June, Governor Paul LePage threatened to end the state’s food stamp program, a move that could have devastating implications: nearly one out of every seven Mainers — that’s nearly 200,000 people — relies on food stamps.

Just steps from the gathering, young Mainers sit down for lunch. “Turkey sandwich, Cheez-Its, oranges, squash,” explains a youngster, describing what’s included in the lunch she’s been given at the Westbrook Summer Meals program, where dozens of youngsters show up each day for what will be, for some, their only meal of the day.

According to the USDA, the inability for adults and children to eat enough has reached a crisis level. Twenty percent of Maine kids live in poverty. 208,000 households live with food insecurity, making Maine’s rate of food insecurity the highest in all of New England and all of the Mid-Atlantic states.

“I get $194 a month. Pretty much what that is equivalent to is one meal a day,” Koral Mitchell shared. Koral, born with Cerebral Palsy, is disabled and receives food stamps through the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP. She’s upset over potential cuts to it and, holding back tears, shared this message for Governor LePage. “Come live our life for one day. Come sleep in the shelter and have one meal a day and then see how you feel.”

Joel Berg says helping those in need like Koral isn’t just good for Maine, but for the entire country. “Our national motto is ‘Ending Hunger Lifts Us All’. It lifts us all spiritually, it lifts up all economically and it’s about time the entire country, starting with Maine finally ends hunger,” Berg stressed.

Hunger Free America has set up a toll-free number to help anyone in the country locate the closest place and programs to assist with food.

The number is 866-3-Hungry (866-348-6479).

There is someone answering calls between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.