MACHIAS, Maine — Helen Vose, the 82-year-old director of the Machias Food Pantry, has never seen the need for food greater among Washington County families than it is this year.
She said last week that instead of the traditional summer downturn in the number of families seeking assistance, this year the number increased.
Without the help of local farmers and gardeners who have been donating tons of produce, people would have gone hungry, Vose said. Food pantries across the country are stretched beyond their means as they respond to needs outside of just food by providing life’s basic needs, fuel assistance and utilities payment help.
This week, one woman who came to the food pantry in Machias at the Centre Street Congregational Church indicated how basic the needs are.
“Is there toilet paper in the bag?” she asked a volunteer, clearly embarrassed at her own question.
From soap to squash, Vose said, the Machias Food Pantry assisted 2,849 families last year.
“That is a combination of food, fuel, gas cards for doctors appointments — everything,” she said. “We spent more than $31,000 just on fuel.”
Volunteer Inez Lombardo said school and community gardens have really helped this summer.
“Washington Academy alone has donated more than 600 pounds of produce already,” she said. “A similar amount has come from the University of Maine at Machias garden, and the Rose Gaffney School [in Machias] has also been wonderful.”
From 9 a.m. to noon every Monday and Thursday, people pour into the pantry, picking from baked goods donated by Hannaford, vegetables and berries brought from local gardens, and then a large shopping bag filled with a week’s worth of groceries.
Eighty bags a week are handed out, Vose said, compared to 60 a year ago.
“This year, the need has increased instead of decreasing in the summer,” Vose said. “We actually ran out of food two weeks ago.”
Vose’s experience mirrors what is happening across the state. Figures released in July indicate that Maine ranks eighth in the nation for childhood food insecurity, a measure that indicates people who are hungry or at risk of hunger. Feeding America research stated that 21.1 percent of children in Maine — amounting to 59,687 — are experiencing food insecurity.
Maine continues to rank highest in New England for childhood food insecurity. Massachusetts has a rate of 13 percent, followed by New Hampshire with a rate of 13.3 percent, Connecticut at 15.9 percent and Vermont at 17.8 percent.
Vose said she didn’t need a national survey to tell her the necessity is growing.
“It hasn’t let up at all,” she said. “People are in need.”
Vose said that in rural Washington County seasonal jobs take a toll.
“Raking blueberries is only temporary,” she said. “The need is every day, and I am really concerned about this winter.”
Vose has been operating the food pantry since 1986.
“That first year, we had 12 people we helped,” she said. “It really has exploded in the last seven or eight years, since fuel has gone so high, that families cannot handle this.”
Vose said that for the first time, the pantry might have to abandon its utility and fuel assistance programs in order to fund its food mission.
“After all, our main purpose is to provide the food,” she said.
As Vose talked, a couple stopped in to donate several bags full of food and school supplies.
“We have no budget,” Vose said. “Everything is done by donations. We spend approximately $3,000 for food every six weeks.”
Vose said the pantry depends heavily on school food drives, but those are not held in the summer months.
A bean supper featuring locally grown ingredients will be held at the pantry at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, to benefit the food fund. At 7 p.m. there will be two food films, Lombardo said.
“This is really a celebration of local agriculture while raising money for the food pantry,” she said.
Donations will be accepted at the door and may include a donated dish from a home garden.