MACHIAS, Maine — Making sure all Washington County residents have enough food and fuel is the driving force behind “Grass and Roots,” a new subcommittee of the Washington County Food and Fuel Alliance.
The new group met this week at the Machias Food Pantry, where volunteers were stacking donated food in the background while committee members grappled with the problem of getting enough services to the people most in need.
Twelve food banks serve Washington County, and organizers say the number of people seeking help has more than doubled in the past year.
Helen Vose of the Machias Food Pantry said she is feeding 60 families every Monday.
“But they really need help with oil, fuel and light bills,” she said.
“These are our neighbors. They are hungry. They are cold. And they are living in substandard housing,” Wendy Harrington of the Maine Sea Coast Mission added.
The alliance and Grass and Roots consist of members of municipal government, social agencies and local churches. Members gathered this week to brainstorm how to pull all Washington County resources together to provide a more cohesive network to provide services such as food, fuel, home weatherization, utility assistance and education.
Washington County statistics, assembled by the Maine Department of Labor, are harsh.
More than 20 percent of Washington County people live below the poverty level. As of December 2009, Washington County’s unemployment level was at 12.2 percent, well above the state level of 8.3 percent, and a 2.5 percent increase over last year.
In 2008, the Maine Department of Labor calculated the livable wage rate in Washington County for a single adult at $10.65 an hour or $20 an hour for a single adult with two children.
Yet, Machias Town Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said, she must turn away applicants for assistance if a couple makes more than $624 a month, or more than $78 each per week.
“It is incredibly hard when I have to sit there and tell them they make too much money when they don’t make a livable wage,” Fitzgerald said.
“People are falling through the cracks all the time. Something has to change,” Voss said.
Joe Perkins of the Washington-Hancock Community Agency said, “There is no question we are seeing 10 to 15 percent more people this year than last.”
At least 80 percent of those new people have never asked for help before, he said.
“It’s tough economic times, and the demand is far greater than our resources this year,” Perkins said. “There is no question that we are seeing more families this season than ever before.”
One of the solutions suggested was for the agencies to lobby for more realistic general assistance payments and to work toward creating a more livable wage rather than basing payments on poverty rates.
The group also discussed making the area’s food pantries into community gathering places, where people could get help finding assistance, learn new skills, and obtain heating and fuel aid, as well as hear nutritional and literacy messages.
“Rather than a place to just pick up food and go, they can become places to discover other services, such as heating and housing information,” Elody Libby of Washington County-One Community said.
“This is just the beginning of the conversation,” Harrington said. “We are coming up with ideas and suggestions that will be part of a larger point of view.”
Grass and Roots will gather accurate data on Washington County poverty and wage levels, what assistance is available and where, and how to create awareness of the food and fuel problem.
“This is not just about running out of oil,” Harrington said. “Why does this happen? Why are these people living on the edge? How do we serve those that don’t qualify but are definitely in need?”
Libby said, “It is not really cheaper to live in Washington County. We have to travel to buy food, travel for medical care, our housing opportunities are older and inadequate. When you are in crisis, you are so stressed. You think: ‘Maybe if I don’t look at the fuel tank, it won’t be low.’ How are we going to work on nutrition issues when their stomachs are in knots all the time? How do we get them to eat four fruits a day when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from?”
Fitzgerald said she hoped the agencies begin an active coalition.
“I don’t want to be sitting around this table five years from now, saying the exact same things,” she said. “We need to create a plan to coordinate emergency resources across the county and develop a better safety net.”
The next meeting of the Grass and Roots Subcommittee is at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 3, at the Centre Street Congregational Church in Machias.