Topic: Soup Kitchens

Unsung Heroes: The Sawyers of Cumberland, Preble Street Sunday stalwarts

CUMBERLAND – In January 2012, the four members of the Sawyer family made a collective New Year’s resolution that was not of the exercise more/eat better/lose weight variety.

They decided to do something together on a regular basis as a family, to help others. So they contacted Preble Street in Portland and were soon put to work.

Preble Street’s mission is to provide accessible, barrier-free services that empower people experiencing homelessness, housing problems, hunger, and poverty, and to advocate for solutions. Food programs represent a critical part of Preble Street’s services, and that’s where the Sawyer family decided to provide support.

On the first Sunday of every month, the four Sawyers – parents Robin and Kevin, and their daughters Paige and Kaley – spend three hours at Preble Street assisting in all aspects of the free lunch program: preparation, serving and cleaning up.

“We mainly work behind the scenes with preparation and cleaning up,” Robin said, “but we’ve done a little bit of everything.”

That “little bit” includes tasks like making 300 servings of banana bread – a project initiated by Robin, when she noticed a huge number of overripe bananas – or bread pudding.

“I only wanted to do dishes at the beginning,” Kevin added, “but now I’ve gotten into cooking. I even made over 200 grilled cheese sandwiches one Sunday.”

The Sawyers have managed to maintain this unusual family tradition for over a year and a half, a good feat given their busy lives.

“It feels good to help out,” Paige, a social work major at the University of Southern Maine, said. “And it’s one of the only times during the month we spend time together as a family.”

Kaley said she believes she gets more than she gives by volunteering at Preble.

“The people are so grateful to see you and to be greeted with a smile. It’s good to be able to help people who are in a tough position, even though they’re trying hard to get by,” she said.

When asked if the experience has disrupted her school life, Kaley said, “It’s only once a month; anyone can find the time to do that.”

Robin added that she loves the feeling of community at Preble Street, especially the contact with the other volunteers.

Kaley is attending Ohio State University now, but the rest of the family plans to maintain the first-Sunday-of-the-month tradition; Kaley will join them when she’s home on breaks.

“We’re very committed to Preble Street,” Kevin said. “It’s become a Sunday afternoon thing for the family.”


Summer Meals in the state of Maine

For many kids, summer vacation is a time to relax – spend some time with their friends, head off to summer camp, or take a road trip with their family. But for too many Maine families, the summer months can be difficult.

When school is out, kids no longer have access to school breakfast and school lunch, and their families’ budgets are often stretched to the breaking point trying to make ends meet. In fact, low-income families report spending an average of $300 more per month on food during the summer. And despite that extra spending, studies show that kids are still at a higher risk for both obesity and hunger during the summer months.

Here’s the problem: of the 64,000 kids in Maine who receive a free or reduced-price school lunch, only 16% of them are also participating in one of the dozens of free summer meals programs across the state that can provide them with healthy, delicious food during the critical summer months. Many families don’t even know these programs exist.

Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is ending childhood hunger here in Maine and across America by closing that gap, and working with public officials, nonprofits, business leaders, and others to increase awareness of and access to these programs, and ultimately connecting more kids in need to free summer meals.

I wanted to see first-hand the great work that Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is doing, so I took the time recently to visit a summer meals site here in Maine to learn how they’re connecting more kids to the free summer meals they need to thrive and what I can do in Congress to support their work. Here in Maine, the No Kid Hungry campaign works closely with Preble Street, a hub of services for families struggling with hunger here in Maine. Preble Street is truly doing amazing work for Mainers – providing 500,000 emergency meals a year to kids and their families, and working tirelessly to expand access to free summer meals.

Here in Maine, 24% of our children struggle with hunger. That’s inexcusable – no child should grow up hungry in America. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way, and by connecting more kids in need to effective nutrition programs like summer meals, we can make No Kid Hungry a reality here in Maine.

Portland Food Pantry gets much needed donation

For nearly a month, New England Rehab has been collecting non-perishable food items for the Preble Street Food Pantry in Portland.

Monday, they delivered the last of those items to the pantry — which feeds about 150 families per week in the community. Besides being a place to pick up free groceries for struggling families… Preble Street Food Pantry is located in their soup kitchen where they serve up to 12-hundred people a day.

How you can help end hunger in Maine

A long line of people wrapping around the building, mostly men and women but some children too, hugging the wall, waiting to get in.

Waiting for a place at the table.

No, this line is not the line winding every night around the Preble Street Soup Kitchen.

Though this line is about hunger, it is a different one. It’s filled with people who want to stop hunger, who care about this injustice and who want to know how they can stop it.

This is the sell-out crowd lined up at the Nickelodeon theater in Portland to see "A Place at the Table," a film about hunger that’s getting the nation’s attention.

As lines have gotten longer at food pantries and soup kitchens across Maine and across the country, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative has been raising awareness of this tragic symptom of poverty and helplessness. We agree that there needs to be targeted action to end hunger. The hundreds of people at the film also agree. The energy and passion in the theater was contagious.

As we have known for years, Mainers care for and about each other.

They have been feeding their hungry neighbors for years while the problem keeps increasing. They want to know how we really can wipe out hunger.

As they well know, and the documentary pointed out emphatically, the valiant efforts of charitable organizations to feed their neighbors are simply not enough.

Thirty-five years ago, there were 200 emergency food programs in the entire country. Now there are more than 40,000.

Community-based food pantries work hard to help their neighbors. But it’s not enough.

In the late 1970s the United States had essentially eradicated hunger. What has happened in the past 35 years? What has propelled our nation to the top of the list of industrialized nations with the worst hunger problems? The film describes the social, economic and political changes that led to this sad and shameful position.

But the film is clear that we can change that. If there is public will, as there was before, we can end hunger.

While we work toward a strong economy and livable wage jobs that eliminate the need for support and assistance for Americans, we can make policies that reduce hunger now.

Right now we can strengthen the U.S. Department of Agriculture federal nutrition programs as we have in the past. Support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC; National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program, Farm to School Program, and the Senior Farm Share Program can end lines at soup kitchens and food pantries.

These programs bring economic benefits to our communities beyond their impact on hunger. For example, every $5 of SNAP generates $9 in the local economy. Farmers gain more economic opportunities when more people purchase healthy foods through these programs. And making sure our neighbors have nutritious food contributes to improved health and reduced health care costs.

A 2013 Deloitte study conducted with the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength shows direct links between child hunger nutrition, and learning. Children who eat breakfast in school score 17.5 percent higher in standardized math tests and miss less school. Children with regular school attendance are 20 percent more likely to graduate.

Making sure our neighbors have access to nourishing food is a win for all.

While there are many public policies and legislative efforts aimed at reducing hunger, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative is prioritizing three things people can do to help right now:

  1. Tell Washington to keep its promise and fully reinstate SNAP in the Farm Bill. Sign on to
  2. Tell Maine leaders to save the General Assistance program from proposed cuts. If this vital safety net is eroded, thousands more Mainers will be forced into food pantry lines and their children will be hungrier.
  3. Keep up with other actions to end hunger or volunteer for efforts to ensure that more kids get healthy, nutritious meals. Sign up or get more information at

At the conclusion of the film, the audience tweeted President Barack Obama, congressional delegates and their Maine legislators. It felt strange to encourage cellphone use in a theater, but it was inspiring to be surrounded by friends and neighbors taking action together.

Join us. Take a stand against hunger today.

Mark Swann is executive director of Preble Street in Portland. Donna Yellen is the Maine Hunger Initiative and advocacy director of Preble Street.

Our View: With hunger growing, not time to cut SNAP

Too many Americans don’t have enough to eat, but the big debate in Washington seems to be how much to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Senate and House committees have passed their own versions of a new farm bill. The Senate would cut SNAP (which used to be known as food stamps) by $4 billion over the next decade. The House version would cut it by $20 billion.

Given the choice between the two, we prefer the Senate’s version, although we are skeptical of the claim by its sponsor Sen. Debbie Stabenow D-Minn. that it would only reduce "waste, fraud and abuse."

But why should there be any cut at all? The evidence shows that hunger is becoming a bigger problem, not that it’s going away.

Hunger now touches 50 million Americans, or one in six. For children, it’s one in five.

Bad nutrition in the first three years of life can result in permanent health and developmental problems. Hungry children don’t do well in school.

Hungry adults are more likely to be sick, miss work and fail to take care of their families.

And the ultimate tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way. A bipartisan effort to end hunger in the 1960s and 1970s had a huge positive effect. Since federal nutrition support has been withdrawn beginning in the early 1980s, the number of families struggling to have enough of the right foods to eat has skyrocketed.

Both versions of the farm bill have some good news, especially for small farmers in Maine. In addition to billions of dollars in subsidies for commodity crops like wheat, soy and corn, there are programs like one that would help schools buy food from local farmers. But it’s a shame to cut food assistance. Federal guidelines are already too strict for this program. People who think it’s too generous should try feeding a family on $125 a week.

We should be finding ways to feed the 50 million, not pulling assistance away from those who need it. Congress should not pass a farm bill that makes the country hungrier.

Hunger crisis calls for immediate attention

Food is a basic need. Without it, we can’t survive.

Maine is in the midst of a food crisis that is so widespread and complex we can’t always see it. But it is there, and it is profound.

First, the good news: We are not starving. Poverty in Maine does not look like Third World poverty, and we do not see people dying in the streets.

But we do have poverty, and we do have hunger here.

Maine ranks seventh in the nation for food insecurity.

Too many people are living in homes where they literally may not know where the next meal is coming from.

Most of these people are part of families in which at least one member has a job. About half live above the poverty line and do not receive food assistance from the government.

This has led to an explosion in the number of church groups and social service agencies providing emergency services. In 1980, Cumberland County had only two food pantries to distribute free groceries to needy families. Today, it has more than 50.

But emergency services are not enough to meet this need. We all should act together through our government to ensure that all Mainers are getting adequate nutrition.

It’s vital that Maine does not further erode the social safety net and cut General Assistance, the last-chance aid for people in need as proposed in the governor’s budget.

On a federal level, Congress should pass a farm bill that puts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) back in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget. It was stripped out by House Republicans last year, leading to an impasse.

In the long term, the nation must rethink its agricultural policies. We continue to subsidize commodity crops that are turned into cheap but unhealthy foods, making fruits and vegetables relatively more expensive.

It’s not as if we aren’t already paying the cost of malnutrition. Children who don’t get enough to eat, or get only the wrong kinds of food, don’t come to school ready to learn. They require more services, including special education, and don’t get the preparation they need to lead productive lives.

Adults who try to stretch a dollar by buying the cheapest calories available can take in too much sugar, fat and simple carbohydrates. This is how food insecurity leads to obesity and a host of medical problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Good nutrition should be available for everyone. That means increasing food assistance to make healthy foods affordable and changing the subsidy system to bring down the cost of the foods people should be eating.

This all boils down to priorities. We have a food crisis, but not a food shortage. If we choose to, we can end needless suffering.

Maine activists, acclaimed film call for action to end U.S. hunger

PORTLAND – On Tuesday night, 452 people stood in line for their dinner at Preble Street — more than twice the number who gathered hours later to call for an end to hunger in the United States.

For Donna Yellen, director of the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, those numbers are telling. More than 200,000 Mainers struggle with food insecurity and nearly a quarter of the children in the state are hungry — statistics that she says are staggering and should serve as a call to action.

"We’re all embarrassed that one in four Maine children is hungry," Yellen said. "The old way of feeding people is not working, so we need to change the conversation to be about solutions."

The Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative aimed to jump-start that conversation Tuesday by hosting the Portland premiere of "A Place at the Table," a 2011 selection of the Sundance Film Festival. The film tells the stories of Americans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and lays out concrete steps to build a nation where everyone has access to affordable and nutritious food.

Between two showings of the film at the Nickelodeon theater, a panel discussion highlighted the hunger issue in Maine and encouraged people to engage in a call to action by tweeting and contacting state and federal lawmakers. Experts said the solution comes not through emergency food distribution, but through changes to government programs.

"The solution needs to be systemic. It can’t just be these stopgap measures," said Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners. She encouraged people to write to legislators to ask them to oppose cuts to General Assistance in the proposed state budget, and to ask the state’s congressional delegation to push for full reinstatement of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the federal farm bill.

Dee Clarke, an activist in Portland who in the past struggled to feed her family, participated in the panel discussion. She said that while she was grateful to receive assistance from food pantries and soup kitchens, "it’s a lousy solution."

Families need support that allows them to get to the point where they can provide healthy food for their children around their own table, she said.

Clarke said showing the film and starting a conversation about solutions goes a long way toward showing people that hunger is a very real problem.

"I think a large group of people have no clue," she said. "They expect someone in poverty to look a certain way, to talk a certain way."

Mark Lapping, a professor of planning and public policy at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, said more Mainers are struggling with hunger as the state loses manufacturing jobs and food prices rise.

People who once donated to or volunteered at food pantries now are standing in line, he said, while others give up food to pay fuel and medical bills.

Claire Schroeder of Portland said the film captured a sense of urgency to deal with hunger, which she feels starts with education.

"It’s a pretty significant issue and I don’t think there’s a lot of awareness around it," she said. "It’s an issue but it’s invisible."


Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315, by email at or on Twitter @grahamgillian

Anti-hunger film to screen in Portland

PORTLAND – Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative is hosting the Portland premiere of "A Place at the Table," a documentary film on food insecurity, on Tuesday, April 30, at 7 p.m., at Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St.

An official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, "A Place at the Table" tells the real-life stories of three people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It’s estimated that 50 million Americans are food-insecure.

The film also includes commentary by experts on hunger, and from two celebrities – Tom Colicchio, of the TV reality show "Top Chef," and Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges.

Following the screening, local anti-hunger leaders will lead a panel discussion exploring possible solutions to hunger in Maine.

More information and ticket reservations are available through Preble Street’s website.

Hunger isn’t getting the attention it should

The stock market has recovered. Home prices are starting to recover and jobs numbers are creeping back, if at a glacial pace.

But for many Mainers, the Great Recession of 2008 has never ended.

If you were poor before the recession, you probably still are. If you were middle-income in 2008, you are lucky if your wages have been stagnant over the last five years. Many have lost ground and are forced to make do with less than they had before.

This is the story being reported by the food pantries and soup kitchens in every corner of the state, even the areas that appear to be the most prosperous.

People who can’t afford to feed themselves adequately are turning to churches and nonprofit aid agencies for help, putting unprecedented demand on their services. Many of the people looking for help are those who earn too much to qualify for food stamps and other government services.

Maine ranks first in New England for having the highest population of people who have uncertain access to adequate nutrition, a condition known as "food insecurity." That affects 17 percent of households, or about 200,000 people.

Hunger and poverty contribute to many of our state’s deepest and most intractable problems. Hungry children can’t focus in school, and just being low-income is itself a risk factor for a variety of medical problems, such as diabetes, asthma, cancer and depression. All are aggravated by poor nutrition.

Paradoxically, low-income people are three times as likely to be obese as those at the top of the income scale, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. That also can be related to food insecurity.

People who miss meals and overeat are more likely to store excess energy as fat. In many cases, food that is low in nutrition but high in calories is less expensive or more available than higher-quality fare that is less fattening.

Generous Mainers should keep supporting the food banks and other organizations that try to meet the need, but charity alone is not enough.

The state should treat hunger as the public health problem that it is. That means getting nutritious food to people who need it, whether they qualify for public assistance or not.

The recession needs to end for everyone. Maine cannot keep ignoring that far too many of us don’t have enough to eat.