Most Mainers will sit down to a table of plenty today, but more than 175,000 of them may be at their local food banks next week, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The recession’s impact on jobs and the economy has caused a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking assistance and stretched the ability of food cupboards in churches and community centers around the state to meet the demand.
The conditions in Maine mirror those across the country. The USDA’s Economic Research Service reported earlier this month that 49 million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, are “food insecure,” up 36 percent over the previous year. Food insecurity is defined as the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources.
Need grows in Piscataquis
Tom Bruce, pastor of the Living Word Community Food Cupboard of Dover-Foxcroft, sees the faces behind those numbers every week and is amazed at the rising number of families in the Brownville-Milo and Dover-Foxcroft areas seeking help from the food pantry this year.
“We’ve been getting 10-15 new families in Dover-Foxcroft every week since September,” Bruce said as he took a break the Friday before Thanksgiving from collecting food items and turkeys in front of Shaw’s supermarket for Thanksgiving boxes for the needy.
What Bruce notices most is that families that used to come to the food cupboard three or four times a year are now coming on a steady weekly or monthly basis, he said.
“Last week 165 families waited in line for more than half [an] hour to get their food because we were so backed up,” Bruce said. That’s about 25 more than were served the week before, but that’s typical of Thanksgiving time, he said.
The people seeking help are those who work part time, have lost their jobs, or are on the end of their unemployment, Bruce said. One man who works part time told Bruce he didn’t know what he would have done through the winter without the extra help from the pantry.
Bruce said he also couldn’t help but notice a change in attitudes this year. He said even some of those who receive assistance from the food pantry donated an item for the Thanksgiving boxes. “The gratitude and the thankfulness has increased,” he said.
The food pantry wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for those people who give so freely, Bruce said.
Al Hunt of the Partnership Food Pantry in Guilford and Greenville said the need for food assistance is “steadily climbing.” He totes a cargo trailer from one town to another to feed the hungry. It used to be that customers would step up into the truck and pick out what they needed, he said, but now, to accommodate the hungry, the trailer is so full that he has to unload the items out of the truck.
Hunt said he served 50 families for a total of 143 people from Guilford at his last open house. In Greenville, about 35 families are being served but most of those are elderly, he said.
Bruce and Hunt’s experiences are born out by the numbers.
The Good Shepherd Food-Bank, based in Auburn, distributed nearly 12 million pounds of food to food banks throughout the state in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — an increase of 23 percent from 2008, according to statistics posted on Good Shepherd’s Web site. The largest increases were in Piscataquis and Aroostook counties.
The amount of food distributed in Piscataquis County grew from 130,957 pounds in 2008 to 299,110 in 2009, an increase of 128 percent. In Aroostook County, the amount of food distributed nearly doubled from 551,535 pounds to 1,078,024 from 2008 to 2009.
Other counties where demand shot up included Washington, Lincoln and Franklin, with increases of 60 percent, 56 percent and 57 percent, respectively. Androscoggin County, where demand fell 11 percent, was the only county in the state that experienced a decrease in demand.
Piscataquis County is one of the few counties where the need for food is almost being met, according to the Good Shepherd Web site. The need in Aroostook County was estimated at nearly 3 million pounds, almost three times the amount of food distributed.
‘Huge spike’ in Bangor
The increase in need has not been limited to rural counties or those hit hard by mill shutdowns.
“We started seeing midsummer an increase in the numbers,” Bill Rae, director of Manna Inc. in Bangor, said earlier this week. “[It was] not in our soup kitchen, but we’ve seen a huge spike in people needing emergency food. That concerns me because I don’t believe we’ve hit the low point yet. People are still trying to make do.”
Manna organizes a turkey drive every Thanksgiving. Last year, it needed 5,600 to meet the need. This year the organization distributed 6,028 turkeys. Two years ago, fewer than 2,000 turkeys were needed, Rae said.
Isaac Mann, director of the Food Pantry at Beacon of Hope Church of God on Ohio Street, said that last year he received an average of four to five new applications for assistance a week. Now he handles 10 to 15, and sometimes 20, a week.
“It’s a very humbling and often degrading experience for people to have to ask for food,” Mann said. “We try to express love and concern for them and tell them it’s not a bread line like in the 1930s. We never turn anyone away.”
Good Shepherd reported that the food banks it supplies rarely turn people away because they don’t have enough food and only occasionally must reduce the amount of food given to individuals.
Mann said earlier this week that the pantry at his church could serve the community much better if it were working out of a storefront rather than a church basement, where storage space is limited.
The amount of money people are able to contribute also is down this year, according to Rae. People want to be generous, he said, but are giving less than they have in previous years.
Food AND Medicine, which assists laid-off union workers and their families, also saw an increase in need this Thanksgiving, according to Laura Binger. Earlier this week, the organization sent 240 food baskets to Guilford, Baileyville and Millinocket. The funds for the baskets were contributed by union members, local businesses and farmers, she said.
“We still have 20 laid-off workers who have not found work and are not going to school,” Philip Polk of Baileyville, vice president of the United Steelworkers Local 27, said earlier this week as he loaded his truck with food at Food AND Medicine’s office in Brewer. “This will help out a lot. People are really struggling up there and they probably wouldn’t take it if it came from somewhere else.”
Montreal-based Domtar Corp., the largest employer in Washington County, laid off 300 workers in May, then hired back many — but not all — about eight weeks later when it reopened. The Sunrise County continues to have one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the state.
Helen Voss manages the food pantry at the Centre Street Congregational Church in Machias. She had to put out a call to the community earlier this fall when food supplies ran low and said she was overwhelmed with donations. “People have been incredibly generous,” Voss said Tuesday. “They really responded.”
Voss said she serves about 60 people a week, a number that is nearly twice what it was a year ago.
“I’ve got to say the need has nearly doubled,” Voss said. “A lot of these people are right on the edge. If you add one more thing, such as filling the oil tank, it tips them over the edge. If the economy gets any worse, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Bangor Daily News writers Sharon Mack and Diana Bowley contributed to this report.