Topic: Soup Kitchens

Maine hunger coalition is a needed voice in policy arena

The last three years have been an unending challenge for the people who distribute food to those in need.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 195,000 Maine residents struggled with "food insecurity," which means having difficulty providing enough food for their families. With nearly 15 percent of households in that category, organizations that supply food to feed them are fighting to keep up.

In Cumberland County, the state’s richest, more than 20 percent of food banks report that demand doubled in the last year alone. More than 80 percent said they have had to modify services, sometimes giving out less food or turning clients away, because of excess demand.

Until recently they did their best on their own to provide for the people who depend on their services. But now a new coalition called the Maine Hunger Initiative has formed to generate more funding and coordinate food donations. This is the right response to these times.

With demand so high, and government resources strapped on the state and local levels, charitable groups and nonprofits are playing a bigger role than ever. It’s important that they are organized and efficient, so that their precious efforts are not wasted.

The Hunger Initiative will also be a strong advocate for people in need, something that has been missing in the policy arena. The group is backing two promising bills in the Legislature that would expand school lunches into the summer and provide tax credits to farmers who donate to emergency food programs.

It is time that Maine has an advocacy group focused on the issue of hunger, while marshaling community support for the groups that help people who don’t have enough to eat.


Coalition looking to fill more Mainers’ plates

Six nonprofits are teaming up to expand food supplies to hungry Mainers and reverse the rise in the rate of people struggling to feed their families.

Leaders of the coalition, called the Maine Hunger Initiative, hope to generate more funding and food donations for pantries, which are facing increasing demand. They also plan to push for statewide policies and legislation to reduce hunger and the poverty that causes it.

"Maine has not had any statewide, concentrated advocacy around the issue of hunger," said Donna Yellen, advocacy director for Preble Street, a Portland-based nonprofit.

Yellen is now also director of the Maine Hunger Initiative, a partnership of Preble Street, the AARP of Maine, the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the Maine Council of Churches, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Muskie School of Public Service.

Members of the new coalition were behind a recent study that showed a dramatic increase in the number of Cumberland County residents who struggle to put food on the table or skip meals because they run out of money.

The report said more than 20 percent of the county’s food pantries saw demand double in the past year, and more than 80 percent had to modify services, such as giving out less food or turning clients away, because of excess demand.

That report led to two initial legislative proposals that the coalition is supporting. One bill would increase summer meal programs for school-age children, and the other would provide a tax credit for farmers who donate to emergency food programs.

The increase in hunger in Cumberland County, Maine’s most affluent county, is reflected across the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 195,000 Mainers — nearly 15 percent of the state’s households — struggled with food insecurity in the period from 2007 to 2009. "Food insecurity" is defined as having difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for one’s family.

Maine’s food insecurity rate was slightly higher than the national average. The state has one of the nation’s highest rates of very low food security, according to the Maine Hunger Initiative. "Very low food security" is defined as periodically going without food.

Maine’s food insecurity rates have been rising faster than the national average, according to the USDA.

Preble Street has seen that increase at its soup kitchen in downtown Portland and at the food pantries it works with in southern Maine, Yellen said.

"We’ve seen the longer lines (of hungry people) and the decreasing food," she said.

More than 1,000 people in Cumberland County now go to food pantries each week so they and their families won’t go hungry, she said.

Cash donations to buy food for the pantries have dropped during the recession, and supermarkets have become much more efficient and have less excess food to donate, say Yellen and others.

"You can talk to any of the food pantries in the area. Everybody says the same thing. It’s just a matter of getting the food," said Paul Hutchinson, who runs a food pantry at the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church on Allen Avenue in Portland.

The pantry opened a little more than a year ago and serves 100 or more families every Thursday morning, he said.

Food pantries are generally reporting a 30 percent to 50 percent increase in people asking for help in the past year, said Christine Force, director of development for the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, an Auburn-based nonprofit that supplies food pantries and soup kitchens around the state.

"What they’re seeing are those people trying to keep two jobs going and meeting all their needs for heat and everything else. They have to make some hard decisions," Force said. "We’re seeing more of the working poor."

Some Mainers, especially the elderly, are less likely to seek help, whether through federal food supplements or from soup kitchens, according to local agencies.

Wayside, a Portland-based nonprofit, is providing meals in five locations around the city, and will soon add a sixth, to reach seniors and families with children, said Susan Violet, its executive director. Wayside also has mobile food pantries to get food to seniors and disabled adults.

"We’re filling gaps," she said. "We’re finding lots of demand."

Families that receive federal food supplements often need more help.

"We’ve got kids, and food stamps don’t last through the whole month," said Jason Fudge, who lives in Portland with his girlfriend and their two daughters, 6 and 4 years old.

Fudge, who used to work as a truck driver, said he has been out of work with a back injury and recently had surgery.

The family receives $600 a month in food supplements, he said. Once that is spent, they turn to food pantries and soup kitchens to feed themselves and their girls.

"You just got to know all the different resources out there," Fudge said. "If you plan it right, you can make it" through the month.

"When I run out of milk, we mix the (dried) milk for the girls," said his girlfriend, Beth Brown. "I don’t like it, but the kids don’t mind it."

Living in downtown Portland makes it less difficult for his family than for some, Fudge said. "If you don’t have a vehicle and you live in those rural areas, it’s pretty hard on them."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:


Report: Hunger a “Hidden Crisis” in Cumberland County

In the cafeteria of the East End Community School in Portland, students carry lunch trays teeming with food to their tables–beef stew, string cheese, milk, and biscuits. What you don’t see is the fact that about three-quarters of the students qualify for free or discounted lunches. Hunger in Maine is a hidden crisis, according to a new report from a coalition of social service and food assistance providers. And they say the latest statistics show the problem appears to be growing.

“Nearly one in seven Maine households–over 14 percent–has difficulty in accessing adequate food,” says Mike Rayder of TD Bank, who co-chaired a coalition looking for ways to reduce hunger–or “food insecurity”–in Cumberland County.

Children may get square meals at school, but the coalition worries about hunger at home, and during the summer months. “It’s a problem that’s been exacerbated by the great recession and our jobless recovery,” Rayder says.

The federal government ranks Maine the ninth most food insecure state. It’s number two in the percentage of people who have the worst access to food and skip meals–just behind Mississippi.

Maine may not be the poorest state, but its households are particularly susceptible to going hungry, according to members of a coalition that includes the United Way of Greater Portland and the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, which wrote the report.

“The very real truth in Maine is that the prices of our food are very high, and our bills are very high, our utility costs are very high,” says Donna Yellin, a social worker from another coalition member, Preble Street, which provides homeless services.

Yellin says that in Cumberland County alone, more than 13,000 people rely on county food pantries. In the past year, the county’s pantries have seen demand jump by 42 percent.

“Sadly, faced with the dilemma of responding to increased need and decreasing donations in this difficult economy, 82 percent of food pantries have had to turn people away, reduce the amount of food given or close their doors early.”

Developing a loan program for food pantries that need money, and helping pantries put into place cost-saving practices and maximize the use of community volunteers are among the coalition’s recommendations.

The coalition also wants to encourage the distribution of fresh food to families. One way is to move excess produce from farms to food pantries and soup kitchens.

“When a farmer is done harvesting a field, there’s often–there’s always–product left behind,” says
Penny Jordan, of the family-run Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. The farm has trained volunteers who pick vegetables that may be imperfect and not right for retail sales but are perfectly edible.

Jordan says that excess produce, especially during peak season, should be processed and preserved.
“The other thing is incentives, and I hate to sound captialistic but farms also need to ensure that they remain viable businesses.”

Jordan stands behind a coalition recommendation to include introducing legislation that would give farmers a state tax credit for donating products.

The coalition also wants to raise public awareness about food assistance programs. About 18 percent of the state population is on food stamps–one of the highest rates in the country–but Rayder and other coalition members say that more people could use the help.

“We have a lot of senior citizens who have that sort of proud Yankee tradition of not necessarily feeling the need to reach out,” Rayder says.

This is also an issue for children and their families. State Rep. Peter Stucky is a Democrat from Portland who’s part of the coalition. He says he knows of children who received food assistance enrolled in early childhood programs.

“But we know that some of the kids who we knew to be eligible for free or reduced meals weren’t following through when they got to public schools,” Stucky says.

Portland schools are trying to take away any stigma to receiving free-and-reduced-price lunches through some new techology.

At the East End Community School, students carry their trays to a table with two debit-like machines. School Secretary Paula Blowers oversees the process.

“And each one has their own individual number. So they pick up their lunches, go through, punch in their number. No one can tell who’s free, who’s reduced, who’s paid.”

That way, Blowers says, the machines keep track of who is getting food assistance, without making anyone feel out of place.


Even ‘rich’ area in Maine hit by hunger, report says

PORTLAND – Cumberland County may be well known as Maine’s most affluent county, but it has plenty of residents who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, according to a new report.

The Campaign to Promote Food Security in Cumberland County is scheduled to release its report today after a yearlong study. It says the recession has dramatically increased the number of Cumberland County residents who aren’t sure they can put food on the table, or skip meals because they run out of money.

Demand is up for food pantries and government food supplements, but agencies estimate there was still an unmet need of about 5 million pounds of food countywide last year.

"People are just becoming aware," said David Plimpton, a lawyer from Cape Elizabeth and a co-chair of the campaign. "People talk about the economy and loss of jobs, underemployment and low wages. But we’re just figuring out the impact. There’s been so much talk about health care and foreclosures, but food isn’t discussed."

Leaders of the coalition are proposing a list of new anti-hunger efforts, to be led by a new Cumberland County Food Access Council.

The campaign was created a year ago with a $48,000 grant from TD Bank, one of the partners in the study. The Muskie School of Public Service, Preble Street and the United Way of Greater Portland were among 60 nonprofits, businesses and public agencies that participated in the effort.

Leaders of the study call it a "hidden crisis" because of the perception that poverty and hunger are problems in northern and eastern Maine, not in Cumberland County.

"We’ve been hearing about the pantry needs (for more food) for a couple of years now. But documenting it just brings it to the forefront," said John Shoos, a senior vice president of the United Way. "It’s surprising to see the need, the very low food security here."

Among the report’s findings about Cumberland County:

• Applications for General Assistance, which helps pay for food and other basic needs, increased 27 percent in the most recent fiscal year.

• The number of residents receiving federal food supplements, or food stamps, increased 37 percent from January 2008 to January 2010. The statewide increase was 30 percent.

• More than 80 percent of food pantries reported that they have had to modify services, such as giving out less food or turning clients away, because of excess demand.

• More than 20 percent of the pantries reported that demand doubled or more than doubled in the past year.

Although there is no official measure of hunger at a county level, Maine had the nation’s second-highest rate of very low food security in 2009, according to federal data. Very low food security means someone has gone without food at some point because he or she couldn’t afford it. Only Alabama had a higher rate.

Leaders of the coalition say the findings show that the existing network of public aid and food pantries is not enough to keep Cumberland County’s residents fed.

"We need to look at this and see if there are some things we can do to be more efficient and more effective," said Michael Brennan, a policy associate at the Muskie school.

A draft of the report also includes 10 pages of goals and recommendations, at least a few of which involve changes in state law.

The coalition also hopes to get federal support through a new law to expand school lunches and make them more nutritious.

"On any given day in Cumberland County, there are roughly 12,000 meals prepared for students who participate in free and reduced-price lunches, and during the summer that drops to 1,700," Brennan said. "We really want to boost the number of (meals) that are available in the summer."


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:


Maine Voices: Bountiful tables not enjoyed by all

PORTLAND – Thanksgiving is a busy time at Preble Street, as at many homes across this country. Families and friends gather to catch up, share stories and build new histories together.

And to eat. Food is a central part of Thanksgiving, ingrained in our cultural understanding of the holiday. For many Maine families, however, this emphasis on a bountiful table is a sad reminder of just how hungry they are.

Recently the USDA announced that Maine ranks a dismal second in the nation for very low food security (government speak for hunger).

One out of seven Mainers experiences hunger. This statistic may be shocking, but we see it every day with long lines of people waiting for food.

Preble Street will serve or distribute 500,000 meals this year at our soup kitchens and food pantries.

In 1980, there were seven food pantries in southern Maine. Today there are 80. Food pantries in Cumberland County saw an average 42 percent increase in clients served last year, and 21 percent of them report more than a 100 percent increase.

What can be done to end hunger in Maine?

There is no one solution, but in 2009 Preble Street launched the Maine Hunger Initiative and, with several partners, has made progress and developed recommendations. We are pursuing market-based solutions and public/private partnerships. We need to maximize federal resources as well as strengthen the heroic community-based food pantry and soup kitchen efforts.

This year a Preble Street Farm-to-Pantry effort contracted with nine local farmers to supply fresh food to 35 emergency food pantries. Healthful products like tomatoes, squash and peas — and 3,000 dozen eggs. The farmers were thrilled to be able to do what they do best — grow and sell food — and help their neighbors.

In a novel public/private partnership, Preble Street secured $277,940 in corporate grants and worked with Maine officials to acquire a $1,111,760 Recovery Act emergency food award.

With these funds we provided $100 grocery cards to Hannaford affiliated stores from Kittery to Madawaska, including Shop ‘n Save, Paradis and others for 13,897 of Maine’s poorest families with minor children — all making less than $8,600 annually.

A resourceful and expeditious approach: federal dollars, private matching funds, the poorest families, direct food purchases, cash infusion for the local economy supporting Maine businesses and farmers.

What else works?

Nationally, record numbers of people applied for and received SNAP/ (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly foodstamps). While we often hear public officials and pundits bemoan increased SNAP usage, the program does exactly what it was intended to do — help Americans during difficult economic times. Times like these.

SNAP benefits not only feed hungry people but also keep families from becoming homeless, keep children from getting sick, and allow people to look for jobs instead of waiting in food pantry lines to feed their families.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, SNAP benefits lifted 3.6 million people out of poverty, including Mainers.

Despite this evidence, there is a child nutrition bill in Congress that will cut SNAP benefits by $2.2 billion. We must insist that Congress restore cuts to SNAP.

Another storm lurking on Maine’s horizon is a waiver that allows for consideration of high heating costs in determining SNAP benefits. If this waiver is allowed to expire, 40,000 households, half of which are elderly or disabled people, will see a marked decrease in their SNAP benefits.

And there are still other underutilized federal dollars available to help with nutrition programs. One example is USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which currently serves only 16 percent of the children who are eligible.

And Maine sadly ranks 47th in the nation in utilization of federal nutrition dollars for child-care facilities. We need to get those dollars to Maine.

Maine is made of communities that care about neighbors. We’re inspired to help.

As food pantry lines get longer, so do lines of people working to end hunger. Food justice is central for groups like the Cumberland County Campaign to Promote Food Security, St. Mary’s Health System Lots to Gardens, Cultivating Community, the Maine Council of Churches, and the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Coalition.

Years ago this nation decided to have running water in every community. We decided to eradicate terrible childhood diseases. We decided to establish fire departments so that devastating fires would not destroy entire cities like the 1866 great fire in Portland.

What if we decided to eliminate hunger?

As we gather around tables everywhere on Thanksgiving Day today, let’s give thanks for the food we have and commit to ending hunger in Maine.


New Hunger Coalition to help growing number of families in need

PORTLAND (NEWS CENTER) — A new coalition of businesses, farmers, food pantries and people who use them has formed to collectively combat the growing problem of hunger in Maine.

Maine is experiencing a sad and shocking distinction: in the last few years, we’ve had the largest increase in the country in the number of families going hungry. The need is greatest in Cumberland County.

Social service coordinators say the rise in forclosures and job losses has put a whole new group of middle class people onto the hunger rolls.

“Its amazing who you see coming to a soup kithcen or a food pantry,” says Dee Clark, a mother and coalition member who uses the food pantry at Preble Street in Portland. “You see little kids coming … little kids in baby carriages coming. I have a friend who is well past 80 who is in the shelter an she’s very dependent on the soup kitchens. She has no food.”

So Mark Lapping, a food expert at the Muskie Institute at University of Southern Maine, realized this … he lept into action. He helped pull together 40 different agencies, farmers, businesses and families who need food to pool ideas and resources and help expand efforts to feed the hungry, and make the system more efficient.

“Most food is not affordable for people lving below poverty line.” says Penny Jordan, a farmer in Cape Elizabeth. Jordan says farmers can contribute food … but also help people find ways to afford fresh produce. One of the things she’s suggesting is that farmers and farmers’ markets to start accepting food stamps and other forms of public assistance.

Dee Clark says not all food pantries offer fruits and vegetables, so she is suggesting supplies be evened out among food pantries across the state so families can get fresh produce on a regular basis.

Marcia Frank, another client of Preble Street and also a coalition member, says many people are too proud or ashamed to go to food pantries. She is suggesting fliers be circulated and put in bags at grocery stores giving people information about how to get nutritious, affordable or free food.

The coalition will be implementing new strategies on a regular basis and hopes to have a new streamlined system up and running by year’s end.

More work needed to combat hunger in Maine

PORTLAND-One recent morning, a mother took her two young boys out for breakfast and "chose" the busiest place in town.

Seventy-nine people were already standing in line, 220 more followed. It was cold and drizzly, and the boys huddled next to their mom, waiting at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen door.

Heroic work happens every day all over Maine to fight hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens, most all-volunteer, form a network of neighbors helping neighbors. Grass roots efforts, crowded into church basements or town halls, work largely unheralded to provide a safety net for families. Recently these emergency programs have been staggered by increased need.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 2003 and 2007 the number of Maine residents that couldn’t afford enough food grew 40 percent. More than half of Maine children who receive free or reduced-priced lunches do not receive school breakfasts.

In 1985 Preble Street served 35 people at our breakfast soup kitchen. In 2003 we averaged 200. Now 300 hungry children and adults line up every morning.

Thirty years ago, if you were working full time, you weren’t necessarily rich, but you certainly weren’t going hungry. Hunger was practically nonexistent. That’s not the case today.

High food prices and skyrocketing unemployment continue to make things worse.

But it isn’t hopeless. It hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Last winter, in partnership with United Way of Greater Portland, we raised close to $300,000 for Maine food pantries. But we know from talking to emergency food providers, we need to do more.

Neighbors, elected leaders, faith communities, and service organizations can join together to get more food to Maine’s hungry.

Driven by the needs of our neighbors and a belief in our heritage of working together to solve problems, Preble Street has created the Maine Hunger Initiative.

Our goal is to relieve hunger and address the systemic problems that cause hunger. We need to identify and eliminate the obstacles that stand in the way of efficient food procurement, transportation and access. We must also focus on changing public policy so that food insecurity will not threaten Maine people.

The Maine Hunger Initiative has three components: Direct service, analysis and advocacy.

We are working to expand food programs that have existed at Preble Street since 1981 to extend food pantry services and provide a three-meal-a-day soup kitchen for women at Florence House.

We are also evaluating Maine’s emergency food delivery structure to determine what works: Who is not being served? Are basic nutrition elements missing? Is food storage a problem? Can we stretch our dollars further?

Working with local food programs, food banks, farmers, food processors and distributors we will ensure that people have access to healthy, nutritious food while supporting the local economy.

Like Maine’s historic barn-raising tradition, this organizing work will bring together public and private partners to solve urgent problems cooperatively and introduce "best practices" to empower people to move beyond hunger and poverty.

Our advocacy effort, the Maine Hunger Initiative, will substantially strengthen the emergency food system and inform state and national policy that can bring an end to hunger.

While we are determined to make the emergency food system more effective, we also need to advocate for public policy that impacts hunger such as food stamps, nutrition support for women, infants, and children, and school meal programs. Advocacy is a core component of Preble Street’s mission and also the means to change that can end the tragedy of hunger in our communities and our state.

Over the past 30 years Preble Street has been committed to not just meet needs but also create solutions. We provide shelter to our homeless neighbors at the same time we strive to end chronic homelessness. We are devoted to feeding our hungry neighbors at the same time we work to end hunger.

In an economic maelstrom that spared no one, especially those who were already on the edge, we cannot just concentrate on feeding people in longer lines at soup kitchens and food pantries. Instead we must use all the strategies we know can work — advocacy, best practices, and wide-based community collaboration — to bring an end to hunger in Maine.

It is possible. Preble Street and its partners are committed to it; and our poor and hungry citizens depend on it.

Help on the way for Maine food pantries

1251333605PORTLAND (NEWS CENTER) — The United Way of Greater Portland has teamed up with the Preble Street Resource Center to raise 275-thousand dollars to replenish the shelves of food pantries statewide.

It’s called Food For ME. A number of corporate sponsors have made generous donations, says the United Way’s Meg Baxter. They include the King Foundation, the Fisher Foundation, L.L. Bean, the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, TD Bank Charitable Foundation and the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation.

Food pantries are experiencing a “perfect storm” of problems. While individual donations are down, so is the amount of food donated by the government’s USDA surplus program and by the food industry itself which is now more efficient at controlling waste.

The $275,000 will be distributed to food pantries statewide through the ten United Way offices in Maine.

Both Meg Baxter and Mark Swann of the Preble Street Resource Center say they hope to raise more money over the coming months for the Food For ME program.