As the Maine State Legislature begins considering budget proposals and bills aimed at further restricting the state’s safety net, a research study by Preble Street and Good Shepherd Food Bank reveals that recent policy changes to food assistance programs have already intensified the suffering and hunger of many Mainers.
“Hunger exists in every town and city in Maine. Working families, seniors, veterans and children struggle with hunger on a daily basis and when safety net programs are cut, more and more people find themselves having to turn to food pantries to get by. That’s not something we should be proud of and we can do better,” according to Willy Ritch, campaign director for A Place at the Table, a national anti-hunger campaign run by Washington-based Food Policy Action Education Fund, speaking at a press conference announcing the release of the study.
Maine ranks third in the nation for hunger. And while hunger is decreasing nationally, Mainers continue to struggle to put food on their tables. Nearly 16 percent of Maine households, or more than 200,000 people, are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“If I’m working as hard as I do, I want to have the right to survive and live instead of going hungry,” said a Hancock County man who participated in the research study.
Alarmed by the persistence of hunger in Maine and changes in the state’s administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that have resulted in thousands of people losing access to food assistance benefits, Preble Street and Good Shepherd Food Bank enlisted Dr. Michael Hillard of the University of Southern Maine and Jean Bessette, doctoral student at the University of New Hampshire, to help them gain a clearer understanding of who is struggling in Maine and what challenges they face getting the food they need.
”The food pantry network is a vital lifeline for families and seniors across our state, but food pantries have been asked to do too much,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “With the Food Bank and food pantries feeding more than 15 percent of Maine’s households on an ongoing basis, that tells me we have a systemic problem on our hands.”
The organizations surveyed more than 2,000 people at food pantries across Maine, asking questions about household demographics, use of charitable food assistance, participation in SNAP, and employment.
Survey results show that recent policy changes to the food assistance program in Maine have deepened chronic food insecurity. Instead of providing assistance in an emergency, food pantries now serve as an ongoing means of survival for many.
“When we started Preble Street 41 years ago, Maine had only 40 food pantries total. Now there are at least 400. Every week hundreds of families line up for food at our pantry. But we wish they didn’t have to,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street.
In addition, the study found that:
- 87 percent of households seeking assistance at hunger relief organizations include a child, a senior, and/or a person with a disability
- 86 percent of respondents use a food pantry once a month or more
- 59 percent of respondents are using the food pantry more this year than they did last
One in four respondents reported being dropped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the past year, due to policy changes in Maine that reduced eligibility, and when asked about the consequences, 86 percent described making difficult choices between paying for food and other necessities, such as healthcare and housing.
As Elton Thornhill, a U.S. Navy Veteran who was cut from the SNAP program explains, “The whole point of these benefits, after you have served your country, is to be able to rely on them. Then I find myself having to jump through hurdles to achieve them and it doesn’t work.”
In addition to presenting results from the research, Preble Street and Good Shepherd Food Bank offer a series of policy recommendations that would help alleviate hunger in Maine.
Read the full report here, or the Executive Summary here.