November 25, 2010

Hunger gnaws at 200,000 Mainers

Pleas for help continue to climb

By Craig Crosby
Staff Writer

Thousands of people across the state will wake up this morning unsure where or how they will get their next meal. Those working the front lines to provide those meals are feeling the pressure.

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A new report reveals that almost 200,000 Mainers have had trouble this year finding food for their families. Thanksgiving often brings thoughts of hunger to many people. Above, Kayla Hallett pushes boxes of food with a cart in the Gardiner Area High School Little Theater as people pick up Thanksgiving food baskets Tuesday morning. National Honor Society members worked on the project. They handled 104 baskets containing a turkey, stuffing, gravy, vegetables and dessert. They also had additional food such as eggs, bread and macaroni.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Members of the Augusta Boys and Girls Club For Teens line up for a Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday at the center in Augusta. Staff and volunteers prepared food and served it to the adolescents who participate in the programs at the club.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture's food security report released last week found 195,000 Mainers -- nearly 15 percent of the state's households -- struggle with food insecurity, defined as people who had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for their families.

Clara McConnell, public relations specialist for the Good Shepherd Food Bank, said the number of people who need help getting food has continued to swell since the economic downturn began in 2008.

"We're still seeing the need increase," said McConnell, whose operation provides food to 600 food banks and pantries statewide, including 12 million pounds of food delivered in the 2009-10 fiscal year. "Our pantries are still reporting they're seeing new families in large numbers. People have been out of work a long time and unemployment is running out. Even people who are working have been hit hard."

The USDA report indicates 14.8 percent of Maine households were food insecure between 2007 and 2009, the years during which the data was collected. The national average of food-insecure households during the period was 13.5 percent.

A total of 6.7 percent of Maine households struggled with "very low" security during the same time period, defined as families that had to reduce the food intake of some household members and disrupt normal eating patterns because of limited resources.

Nationally, 5.2 percent of households suffered very low security, according to the report.

The number of food-insecure households in Maine rose by 5 percent between 1996 and 2009. The number of homes with very low security rose by 2.7 percent during the same time period.

Maine's rate of increase was double the national average in both categories.

So food banks across the state have shifted into high gear trying to meet the growing need, McConnell said.

"We're doing everything we can to get food out to all the communities," McConnell said. "There's hardly a community in the state we don't serve in some capacity."

The number of people seeking help from central Maine agencies bear out the report's findings.

Abigail Perry, director of the Augusta Food Bank, which also serves Manchester, said her agency saw 17 new families two weeks ago. That is on top 17 new faces that showed up about a month ago.

Perry's food bank fills about 350 requests per month, which represents more than 700 people.

"There's lots of bigger families as a result of families moving in together to try and make ends meet," Perry said. "We're going to have well over 400 new requests this year alone."

Perry also has noticed that those who have been holding their own for several months are now reaching out for help.

"They've been managing on their own, getting by, but something happened so they're coming back," Perry said.

Cathy Pelletier, co-coordinator of the Gardiner Food Bank, said new families show up there every time the doors open. The bank served 26 people Tuesday -- an average night these days.

"Some of those families have seven in the family, six in the family. It's getting really scary," Pelletier said. "We're seeing people who maybe two years ago were donating who are now coming in to get food."

Capt. Matthew Morrison, commanding officer of the Salvation Army in Augusta, said his pantry has seen 17 new faces in the last six months.

"A lot of the people we're seeing now are those who have been laid off, or who work seasonally and work was slow this year," Morrison said. "They need help getting over the hump."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Staff photo by Joe Phelan Tim McLellan carries a bag of potatoes through the Fellowship Hall at the Green Street United Methodist Church on Wednesday morning in Augusta. McLellan is the coordinator for the church's annual free Thanksgiving dinner that will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. Some of the other local community dinners are at Gardiner Area High School, St. Francis Parish Hall in Winthrop, the Chelsea Elementary School and Maranacook Community High School.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan


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