Maine food pantry can’t keep up; feds say region isn’t poor enough for aid

Kitty Green, a volunteer at Care and Share Food Closet in Farmington, selects cans of food from the dwindling supply.
Kitty Green, a volunteer at Care and Share Food Closet in Farmington, selects cans of food from the dwindling supply.
Posted Sept. 24, 2012, at 5:32 a.m.

FARMINGTON, Maine — Some of the shelves are bare at the Care and Share Food Closet.

The number of people served has increased, and there’s less money to purchase food items, food closet co-chairwoman Carolyn McLaughlin explained.

“The food flies off the shelves,” she said, noting the nearly 700 people, up from the usual 600, served this month. “We haven’t had items like juice on the shelves for a long time.”

The challenge, one that keeps McLaughlin awake at night, increased with recent news that local food closets would not receive annual funding through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program geared to help emergency food and shelter programs.

The reason is because Franklin County, along with Oxford County, didn’t meet the program’s requirements for unemployment and poverty, according to the most recent census.

“Franklin County is not poverty-stricken enough,” McLaughlin said.

The criteria for applicants requires the county to have 300 or more unemployed and either a 10.7 percent rate of unemployment or a 15.8 percent poverty rate, said Lisa Laflin, executive director of the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area, which administers the program.

Franklin County’s poverty rate was just three-tenths off. From May 2011 to April 2012, the time period considered, Franklin County had 9.4 percent unemployment and a 15.5 poverty rate, she said.

“The criteria significantly increased from the previous year, which really says our country and various communities and counties are suffering. There are limited funds and real hardships,” she said.

Franklin has normally received about $20,000 through the application process.

Over the past year, funding was cut by 41 percent, providing just $12,700. After showing the need here, an additional grant of $10,000 was received in June, she said.

The two counties will receive nothing for the next annual phase of funding.

Of the 10 food closets in Franklin County, nine apply and receive funds as decided by a separate board organized by the United Way. The amounts are determined by a formula based on numbers served.

The FEMA funds, along with an October appeal for donations, provide the bulk of funding to purchase food for the Share and Care Food Closet, McLaughlin said.

Care and Share normally receives about $5,000, McLaughlin said.

In Oxford County, 12 programs, including food pantries, meal sites and homeless shelters, receive help from this funding, Dennis Gray, executive director of the Oxford County United Way, said.

“It’s always in the $20,000 and up range,” he said. “This is the first time in 20 years that we haven’t been funded.”

The United Way has no intention of letting the matter drop, Laflin said. She’s communicating with other United Ways in Maine and meeting with a representative from the Maine Hunger Initiative on Monday.

She knows there’s a real need to advocate, especially for a portion of the program funds given to the state.

Advocacy is needed, but it’s not enough. The community and churches need to work together instead of separately, she said.

“Just think of the power we’d have working together to help people in need,” she said, remembering the theme of this year’s United Way annual appeal: “Feed the Need.”

The Oxford board is meeting soon and will discuss plans for dealing with the loss of funding, Gray said.

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