Many more low-income Maine seniors will be receiving free monthly food boxes this year.
A recent influx of federal support means the food boxes will reach about 4,364 low-income Maine seniors in the four-country territory served by Bangor-based Eastern Area Agency on Aging in 2017. That’s an increase of about 3,500 households in the same region over last year.
Other areas in Maine also will see increases in their 2017 allotments from the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program, including 1,000 new enrollment slots for Aroostook County and another 1,000 for Cumberland County. Statewide, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program will serve about 9,230 individuals this year, a big jump from 3,229 statewide in 2016.
“This year, I was the squeaky wheel,” said Jason Hall, director of The Emergency Food Assistance Program at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, whose job includes applying each year for federal food subsidy programs.
Because some other states haven’t been very successful at distributing their food allotments to needy households and individuals, and because Maine has consistently performed well, the state’s allotment got a big bump-up in January, Hall said.
Eastern Area Agency on Aging got the lion’s share of the allotments, Hall said, because the 13,000-square-mile region it serves includes some of the highest rates of poverty in the state, as well as a large population of elderly residents.
Now, the onus is on agencies such as Eastern Area Agency on Aging to enroll eligible Mainers in the program and be sure they pick up their monthly boxes of food, he said. Otherwise, next year’s allotment could be smaller, at a time when the need is growing, not diminishing.
“We’ve really made a commitment to get this food out into the community,” said Rob Crone, director of nutrition services at Eastern Area Agency on Aging.
That means ramping up the existing network of social agencies, civic groups, medical offices, housing programs and other resources that serve low-income Mainers, enlisting new volunteers and generally making sure people sign up and then show up to collect their food.
Seniors age 60 and older with an annual income of 130 percent of the federal poverty level or below — currently about $15,180 but due to rise soon — can qualify for the monthly food delivery. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program requires proof of income, such as a social security letter, bank deposit slip or pension check.
Each box comes packed with a changing selection of nonperishable foods such as dry cereal, boxed milk, peanut butter, canned meats or fish, canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, rice, juice and more, including a block of processed American cheese.
Crone said the food plays an important role in meeting the nutritional needs of Maine seniors.
“Commodity foods used to be government ‘seconds,’ but that’s no longer the case,” he said. “This is all first-run stuff.”
Unfamiliar labels on some products may mean they were intended for distribution in other parts of the country, he said, but all the food is nutritious, produced in the U.S. and and a welcome addition to the diets of older Mainers getting by on limited incomes.
The commodity boxes are ordered each month from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. From there, they are trucked to drop-off points throughout the state, including 23 sites in the Eastern Area Agency on Aging region, and then further distributed to local churches, civic groups and other places where they can be picked up by enrolled seniors of their designees.
An estimated 30,000 Mainers 60 and older qualify for food subsidies, according to estimates from the statewide agencies for aging and other groups, and the organization Feeding America estimates that Maine needs 11 million more subsidized meals per years, across all age groups.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, Maine seniors 60 and older suffer the 13th highest rate of food insecurity in the nation, with nearly 17 percent experiencing the threat of hunger, compared with the 15.75 percent national average. The rate was highest among those 60 to 64 years old. Rates in nonmetropolitan areas were higher than in cities, and women more at risk than men. Not surprisingly, poverty and unemployment are major contributing factors to higher rates of food insecurity and hunger, the study shows.
The organization also reports that seniors living with food insecurity consume fewer essential dietary nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and calories, than their non-insecure counterparts, and are more likely to report chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and difficulty accomplishing the normal activities of daily life.
More recently and closer to home, a report released last week here in Maine shows that overall food insecurity is pervasive and persistent in both population centers and more rural areas of the state. The report, “Hunger Pains: Widespread Food Insecurity Threatens Maine’s Future,” is a project of the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland and the Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank, which serves communities across the state.
It finds that 203,000 Mainers of all ages live with some level of food insecurity, or about 15.8 percent of all residents. The rates are highest in Washington, Aroostook and Piscataquis counties, areas where poverty and unemployment are among the highest in the state, and where many elderly Mainers live on their own or with families members. And while food insecurity in the U.S. has decreased since the official end of the Great Recession in 2009, the study finds that rates in Maine have stayed steady because of economic conditions and demographic trends.
The report links Maine’s food insecurity with high levels of poverty and recent policies at the state level that restrict access to the federal food stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Regardless of the cause of the food insecurity problem in Maine, Crone of Eastern Area Agency on Aging said older Mainers shouldn’t be struggling to keep themselves fed. A patchwork of federal, state and local efforts can help, he said, including this new influx of commodity foods from the federal government.
Seniors can determine their eligibility and enroll in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program by calling 800-432-7812 or 877-ELDERS1.