Topic: Maine Hunger Initiative

Farm Bill maintains SNAP, contains provisions for maple, honey, and organics

Preble Street and other poverty relief organizations in Maine are relieved that the 2018 US Farm Bill has passed with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, intact.

The $867-billion dollar omnibus bill passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers, but not before a tense year of negotiations, including a House version of the bill that would have cut SNAP and imposed work requirements, potentially reducing or ending food benefits for some 2-million recipients.

“We absolutely needed this legislation to come through,” says Director of Advocacy for Preble Street, Heather Zimmerman. Zimmerman says their nonprofit organization served about 600-thousand meals to hungry Mainers last year. “Quite simply we are already stretched to capacity. We cannot fill the gap if government programs are eroded.”

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Maine groups team up to combat child hunger

With Maine listed as having the third-highest rate of food insecurity in the country, Maine Medical Center’s pediatrics unit is teaming up with the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative to help reduce that number.

The Hunger Vital Sign program connects patients with food options that they may not have otherwise, the hospital said.

“It’s really about empowering people to know that we know you love your children, you care for them and you want to provide for them,” said Michelle Lamm, with Preble Street. “We care about your children too, and we want to help you provide for them.”

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New research released on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

New research was released today on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to better understand the effects the program has on Mainers.

Two organizations, Maine Equal Justice Partners and Preble Street, partnered to survey families around the state.

The report written by a University of Maine Professor found 62-percent of respondents said they would get very little to no help to get the food they need if they lost SNAP benefits.

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Cutting programs to help the poor doesn’t eliminate poverty

The LePage administration likes to tout how it has reduced the number of people who receive social services in Maine. If fewer people get government help, the thinking goes, the problems that caused their need for help also have been magically eliminated.

Data show this isn’t true.

Take hunger. A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the percentage of people in Maine who don’t have enough food has risen. In the Pine Tree State, 16.4 percent of households reported being food insecure, on average, during 2014-16. During the previous three-year period, 2013-15, 15.8 percent of households reported being food insecure. Nationally, the percentage of food insecure households dropped from 13.7 percent to 13 percent in that time, continuing a downward trend. Meanwhile, Maine has risen two spots to become the 7th most food-insecure state.

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Feeding Rural Kids Still Challenging, Even As Maine Expands Summer Meal Program

Nearly half of all kids in Maine qualify for free and reduced-price lunch at school. During the summer months, when school is out, there haven’t been a lot of options for those families – but that’s starting to change.

In the past ten years, the number of summer meal sites in the state has more than tripled. But reaching students in rural Maine is still a major challenge.

In a small pavilion outside of Gray-New Gloucester High School, Rhondalynn LaMarca slices and scoops pizza to a long line of hungry students. This meal site, like many in Maine, emerged within the past decade. LaMarca says while it’s heavily used now, it was a struggle to get people to come in at first.

“There used to be a stigma,” she says. “‘Oh, you have to get a free lunch.’ That is completely reversed. Now it’s like, ‘Oh you’re getting lunch. I want to do that. I want to get together with my community.’“

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Student breakfast program a success

SOUTH PORTLAND — Schools nationwide have long touted the importance of a good breakfast in giving students a positive start to their day. South Portland High School is no different, but officials have found that it’s not always enough to simply offer a healthy morning meal, even at free or reduced prices.

“Even though the cafeteria is only about 1,000 feet from the main entrance, we found students who arrived at school, even though they had not yet had breakfast were not always bothering to take advantage of it,” said the school department’s food services director, Martha Spencer. “Kids come and go and sometimes just that little bit down the hall is too much for them, because they’re just barely making it in time for their first class, anyway.”

But according to Katie Pazienza, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working for the Maine Hunger Initiative program run by Portland’s Preble Street resource center, there are social factors at play that make it uncool to hit the cafeteria in the morning.

“It is not enough to simply offer breakfast,” she said. “A stigma has arisen where the kids who must eat breakfast at school in the morning are viewed as poor, versus those who can choose to socialize with their friends during that time. At the Maine Hunger Initiative, we work with schools to implement ‘Alternative Breakfast Models’ — ways of offering breakfast in which all students are encouraged to eat even when breakfast comes after the bell rings.”

To that end, Spencer decided the best solution was to make breakfast just too convenient to pass up, by placing it right in the path between the school’s front door and the stairwell that leads up to South Portland High School classrooms, and to staff it with someone she’d knew had a knack for building a rapport with each teen that passes by.

Last year, Spencer applied for a $4,000 grant from Full Plates, Full Potential, an anti-student-hunger organization led by former state senator Justin Alfond. That money was used to purchase a food cart that, since last fall, meets students at the front door, with full meals and healthy snacks they can “grab-n-go” on their way to class.

Use of the cart has added about 50 breakfasts per day to the school’s morning menu, based on tracking of full meals dispensed at free and reduced prices, a tally taken to get coverage of the subsidy from the federal government.

“That may not seem like a lot, but what a lot of students get is not a full meal – which has to have all of the components to count for reimbursement – but what we call a la cart,” Spencer said. “But still, they’re all healthy snacks, and it gives these kids something to have in their bodies to fuel their brains as they get to their first or second period class, so they can get there ready to learn.”

“In all, I serve between 65 and 80 kids per day, and for the most part that’s kids who tell me they would have gone without and just tried to make it until lunch, or whatever,” said Deanna Hight, who mans the cart from 7 a.m. until first bell, returning for a second shift that lasts until 9 a.m. to catch tardy students and those passing by on the way to their second class. During that time, Hight moves her cart around the front lobby area to capture maximum interest, from the front door, to the office door where students must check in after the school day starts and outer doors lock, to the bottom of the main stairwell for the last few stragglers between classes.

“The fact that this is available us so important,” said Preble Street Advocacy Director Jan Bindas-Tenny. “Maine is third in the nation in terms of childhood hunger, with one in four children experiencing food insecurity. That means that 25 percent of Maine students may not have access at all to breakfast at home.”

“Full Plates is funded all through private fundraising, and most of the money goes right out to the schools for things like this, which is part of our ‘breakfast-after-thebell’ program,” Bindas-Tenny said.

A bill to fund breakfast after the bell programs for schools that have more than 50 percent low-income students, as measured by those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, passed both houses of the state legislature June 1. That would not apply to SPHS. Kaler and Skillin Elementary schools are the only two in South Portland at that threshold.

Still, South Portland High School officials agree, the secret ingredient in their program, something no other school testing breakfast after the bell can boast, is Hight.

Although she works just a few hours per week, Hight has direct contact with as many students every day as any person on the high school staff, and she meets each one with a warm, beaming smile.

That emotional nourishment, vice principal Kimberly Bennett said, is just as important as the starter calories Hight sells.

“Students like the one-on-one time they get with Deanna in the mornings and I think some actually prefer to go to the cart instead of the cafeteria for that reason,” Bennett said. “Deanna knows the kids so well. She greets them by name and often knows their choices and asks them if they want their ‘usual.’ The relationship and connection kids have with Deanna, and the rest of our cafeteria staff, is wonderful.”

“I just love all of the kids,” said Hight, a South Portland High School grad who now lives in Scarborough. “You don’t know what someone’s home life is like, so, even though I may only have two minutes of interaction with a student, I try to be positive and really fill that moment, to give them a friendly ear at the start of their day, to try and let them know just be being here to serve them that they are cared for.

“Feeding students with both good food and supportive relationships leads to better results,” said Superintendent Ken Kunin.

Whether or not the morning meal and support from Hight has resulted in better grades is hard to say. But one measure has been taken.

“The school nurse tells be she has definitely seen a decrease in the number of kids coming to her office since we started this,” Spencer said.

“That’s because kids end up in the nurses office because they haven’t eaten and just don’t feel well,” Bindas-Tenny said. “As we’ve pushed these types of programs, we’ve found more and more teachers, too, getting on board with letting students bring these morning meals they get on the go into the classroom. It ends up actually being less of a distraction. It’s not rocket science. When kids are hungry they can’t focus on what they are supposed to be doing in school.”

It helps also, Spencer said, that South Portland High School, has a strong recycling and composting program.

“Kids are trained in that right from their first day here as a freshman, so you don’t see a lot of trash lying around,” Spencer said.

The good news is that the program is self-sustaining. Sales needed to be strong enough to support the extra 90 minutes the breakfast cart added to Hight’s schedule each day. As it turned out, the student reaction was enough to assure Spencer that the alternative breakfast program will be a permanent part of South Portland High School life.

“We knew that within a month,” Spencer said. “It absolutely will be back next year. If not, the kids would have a fit.”

And that’s fine with Hight.

“I absolutely love what I do,” she said. “It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at

The People Left Behind When Only the ‘Deserving’ Poor Get Help

ORLAND, Maine—In the eyes of the state of Maine, Laurie Kane is an able-bodied adult without dependents, and thus ineligible for most forms of government support. In her own eyes, it is hard to see how she is going to find housing, work, and stability without help.

Kane is struggling to put her life back together amid a spell of homelessness that has lasted for three years. She has a severe anxiety condition, along with other health problems, and had suffered a panic attack on the day I met her. But she had not managed to sign up for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, because she cannot get a doctor to certify her as being disabled. That’s not because a doctor has evaluated her and found her to be fine, but because she’s been unable to get a doctor’s appointment. “I was denied MaineCare because I’m considered an able-bodied person,” she told me. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, you can just get free care.’ They say, ‘You can go to a clinic with a sliding-fee scale, which would be $20 a visit.’ But what if I can’t come up with $20?”

She was also struggling with the state’s newly instated requirement that recipients of food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, work for 20 hours a week or volunteer for 24 hours a month. She rarely leaves her room at the homeless shelter, she said, because it makes her so anxious. Even filling out the paperwork and sending it in to certify her shifts at a soup kitchen seemed like a lot. “I’m very worried about losing my food stamps,” she told me. With no cash income, no savings, no home, no health coverage, no car, and no treatment for her medical conditions, finding steady work seemed impossible. How would she get to a job in this depressed, rural part of the state? What about her panic attacks? If she lost her spot at the shelter, how would she get to her volunteer gig?

Kane is one of tens of thousands of Mainers affected by sweeping changes made to the state’s anti-poverty programs by the state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage. His administration has tightened eligibility for Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare, and hopes to do yet more: adding work requirements to Medicaid, removing young adults from public health coverage, and eliminating the state’s general-assistance funds for the indigent. The broad aim of these reforms is to create a safety net that provides help for the disabled, elderly, and children, but prompts able-bodied adults to help themselves. “It is this idea that all welfare should be workfare,” said Michael Hillard, an economist at the University of Southern Maine.

In implementing these changes, Maine has become a bellwether. A number of other states are copying the state’s reforms or devising similar ones of their own, with numerous states mulling attaching work, volunteering, and job-training requirements to safety-net programs… [Click here to read more]

Crowd at Portland vigil mourns loss of homeless residents

A crowd estimated at 200 people gathered in Monument Square on Wednesday evening to light candles and read the names of homeless residents who died this year.

The event, held each year on the evening of the winter solstice, started in the courtyard of the Preble Street social service agency before the procession marched up to nearby Monument Square.

“This is such an important night to show our support for our brothers and sisters who are struggling with homelessness,” Caroline Fernandes, residential services director for Preble Street, told the crowd.

For the past 22 years, advocates and the people they serve have gathered for the Homeless Persons’ annual Memorial Vigil. It gives Portlanders a chance to mourn lives cut short and to confirm their commitment to finding a home for everyone who needs one.

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A simple change could give Maine’s hungry rural people more food

… Over the past year, Good Shepherd Food Bank and Preble Street have undertaken the first research effort of its kind to better understand trends of hunger and food pantry usage in Maine.

The results from more than 2,000 surveys completed in 244 towns in every county show how much Mainers are depending on local food pantries, stretching the capacity of a network that was set up for emergencies. A quarter of those surveyed had lost SNAP benefits in the past year, and 59 percent said they were using pantries more this year than last.

“It was really when the recession hit,” said Kristen Miale, Good Shepherd Food Bank’s president. “They saw the spike, and it has yet to get better.”

Eighty-two percent of those surveyed at their local food pantries use pantries once a month or more often. Seventy-three percent have made trade-offs, having to choose between paying for food or other necessities.

Pantries are filling a need they weren’t designed to fill, said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, which offers social work, housing and meals. Good Shepherd Food Bank’s pantry network — of which Preble Street is a part — gives out 21 million meals a year, while SNAP is responsible for the equivalent of 86 million meals.

“The whole idea of food pantries really was about an emergency measure, neighbor helping neighbor when something unexpected happened, catastrophe happened, and when people needed one-time, short-term help,” Swann said. “What we’ve seen is people have been coming back over and over and over again.” …

Read the full article here.