As the economy stagnates and unemployment rates remain high, demand for food assistance in Maine is increasing.
A recent report released by the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, Feeding America, found that unprecedented numbers of Mainers are seeking emergency food assistance from their local food pantries.
In addition, enrollment in Maine in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as the food stamp program, has risen sharply in recent years, with a 46 percent increase since 2007 in the number of enrollees who claim no other source of income.
Barbara Van Burgel, director of the Maine Office of Integrated Assistance, which administers food stamps in the state, said demand for the program follows trends in unemployment and other factors.
“As unemployment goes up, the food supplement program tracks it pretty closely,” she said.
While unemployment rates have not risen as steadily as food stamp enrollment in Maine, unemployment increases from 4.6 percent in 2007 to 5.4 percent in 2008 and 8.2 percent in 2009 correlate with sharp rises in food stamp enrollment in those years.
Nearly $29 million in federal food supplement funding went to 224,580 Mainers in January of this year alone, compared with 195,688 individuals receiving about $21.4 million in benefits in January 2009.
Van Burgel said the price of the program can be misleading.
“That means each person gets about $4.29 a day to eat on, or $1.43 for each meal,” she said. “It’s pretty hard to eat on $1.43 a meal. It’s very difficult to eat a healthy diet on food stamps alone.”
Growing numbers of people on food stamps are shopping at their local food pantries. According to a recent survey, 57 percent of Maine households served by the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Auburn, the state’s largest emergency food distributor, also are enrolled in SNAP.
Good Shepherd is the primary supplier of food to 654 pantries, soup kitchens, after-school programs, homeless shelters and other sites throughout the state.
The recent Feeding America study found that Good Shepherd feeds about 36,800 Mainers each week, about twice the number Executive Director Rick Small estimates has been the norm in previous years.
“The last couple of years have seen an extreme increase in demand,” Small said.
“Maine is a difficult place to live financially,” he said, explaining that a low average wage and a high cost of living can make life challenging in the best of times. “But now an awful lot of people are either without jobs or they’re working part-time for low pay and no benefits. We have a lot of working families coming into our pantries now — a lot you would label middle class.”
That increase comes at the same time that donors, both individual and corporate, are tightening their belts.
Over the 28 years that Good Shepherd has been in business, Small said, grocery chains have been an essential source of food donations. Outdated breads and bakery items, fruits and vegetables just past their prime and other perishable foods have formed a reliable source of nourishment for hungry families throughout the state.
“It all gets donated to us instead of going to the landfill,” Small said.
But recently, he said, grocery companies have implemented efficiencies that allow them to better manage their food inventories, resulting in less waste — and less food for the patrons of Good Shepherd.
In addition to direct donations from food stores, Good Shepherd relies on cash gifts from individuals, families and groups. Despite the hard times, he said, these modest donations continue to flow in.
“The greatest part comes from smaller checks — $10, $20, $50,” Small said. These gifts mean a lot to Small.
“Our solid support is grass-roots,” he said. “People are very aware that there are people in their communities that need food.”
Small said donations to Good Shepherd and other food pantries peak between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, but the need for food assistance remains constant.
The demand is great during school vacations and during the summer, he said, when most school-based food programs are not operating and families struggle to keep hungry children fed.