5,000 households—in Cumberland County alone—depend on food pantries every month. 21% of food pantries report that their numbers have more than doubled, and 82% of food pantries have had to make some type of cutback, either giving less food or even turning people away. These are dire circumstances.
Observing increasingly frequent bare shelves at the Preble Street food pantry, we learned that the USDA Bonus Commodities coming to Maine had decreased from over 3 million pounds of food in 2002 to less than 300,000 pounds in 2007. At the same time, from 2000 to 2005, the USDA reported that the rate of hunger grew more rapidly in Maine then in any other state in the nation.
Hunger in Maine
- Food insecurity affects 16.4% of households in Maine
- Maine ranks 6th in the nation, and 1st in New England, for very low food security (“hunger”)
- Food insecurity and hunger affect Maine households at a rate significantly higher than the national averages of 13% and 5.2%, respectively
- Food insecurity and hunger in the United States peaked in 2011 (following the recession) and have been steadily decreasing in the years since—they remain consistently high in Maine
- Maine has gone from being ranked 19th worst in the country for food insecurity and 7th worst for hunger in 2011, to being ranked 7th worst for food insecurity and 3rd worst for hunger in 2016, behind just Alabama and Louisiana for worst in the nation
- DHHS reported a 38% rise in SNAP (food stamp) participation between 2008 and 2012
- Currently Maine is only serving 16% of children who eligible to receive a free meal in the summer
- In 1977 there were 3 food pantries open in southern Maine, today there are 80 food pantries—approximately a quarter (25%) of these pantries have opened in the past 5 years
- Food pantries provide food to more than 25,000 people in southern Maine
To respond to a systemic crisis that had grown unabated for decades, Preble Street created the Maine Hunger Initiative in 2008 to 1) meet immediate food needs, 2) offset food supply shortages, and 3) develop long-term solutions to hunger.
Maine Hunger Initiative first took action to offset food supply shortages for food pantries in Maine in early 2009, partnering with United Way and private funders throughout Maine on the Food for Maine project which raised nearly $300,000 to stock pantry shelves across the state.
It next developed efficient, client-centered emergency food services at Preble Street, merging with St. Luke’s Soup Kitchen and partnering with hundreds of faith groups, civic organizations, businesses, and individuals to operate eight soup kitchens and a food pantry.
Its most important task, however, is to bring an end to soup kitchen and pantry lines. To build the capacity of volunteer-run local food pantries, strengthen the emergency food system, create practices and policies to assist hungry Mainers to become more self-sufficient. To end hunger by working to:
- Make Maine an anti-hunger leader, particularly in child-related food policies such as the availability of stigma-free breakfast and summer meals for all Maine children
- Improve access to food and other entitlements that reduce personal poverty and are economic drivers
- Develop best practices and education/training at points of access (e.g. food pantries, Head Start) throughout the state
- Promote policies and funding that benefit both struggling farmers and hungry Maine families, decreasing wasted crops and sustaining local agriculture
- Empower people in poverty to increase public awareness of hunger and create solutions
Emergency Food Work
Our direct service, emergency food work meets basic needs of the most impoverished residents of Maine’s largest urban area, providing 500,000 meals a year at Preble Street:
- Soup Kitchens in 3 locations providing nutritious meals 3 x 365 to hungry children, families, adults, elders
- Food Pantry weekly to households facing economic hardship, disabilities, cultural challenges, etc.
and offering social work services to empower people to move beyond hunger and poverty.
MHI organizing began by connecting with all (80) food pantries in York and Cumberland Counties, a critical but fragile resource, to assessing the emergency food delivery system. Coordinating efforts of 49 Cumberland County pantries, we worked to alleviate hunger and create a blueprint for a sustainable, replicable system through:
- Regional food pantry meetings
- Technical assistance and training
- Food sourcing partnerships (e.g. Farm to Pantry)
- Best practice research and implementation
Advocacy efforts aim to raise public will to end hunger by augmenting public programs designed to promote self-sufficient families, stable local economies, and healthy communities. Partnering with AARP Maine, Maine Center for Economic Policy, Maine Council of Churches, Maine Equal Justice Partners, and Muskie School of Public Service, we are developing steps to eliminate conditions that force people to depend on food programs. Our collaborative anti-hunger work includes:
- Helping initiate and lead the Campaign for Food Security in Cumberland County
- Participating in the North East Regional Anti-Hunger Network and the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps
- Supporting anti-hunger legislation
- Identifying public policy priorities
- Organizing testimony by people who experience food insecurity
- Advocating with federal delegates for Food Supplement benefits including the SUA, WIC, and SNAP