BELFAST, Maine — Frazzled crowds of last-minute shoppers jostled in the aisles of the state’s grocery stores on the day before Thanksgiving to pick up a few more items for the upcoming feast.
But the lines of people who chatted quietly just outside the Belfast Soup Kitchen Wednesday morning while waiting their turn to fill recycled plastic bags with donated day-old bread and slightly blemished produce have food on their minds in a very different way.
Zelia Correia, 46, of Belfast has multiple disabilities, and now the former day care provider is too sick to hold down a job. Her car broke down recently. She lost her house last year and lives on a fixed income that is too small, she said, to support her and her two teenaged children. She comes to the food pantry to find the fresh produce that is better for her health, if not for her pocketbook.
“Everything is so expensive,” said Correia, whose calm demeanor belied the sadness of her personal history. “Trying to feed three people — even though I’m on food stamps, it’s not enough. I’m always broke.”
Correia is just one of the 15.4 percent of Mainers categorized as being “food insecure,” according to the Maine State Planning Office. The USDA defines food security as access by all people at all times to get enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. According to the government agency, in 2011 Maine was at the national average for percentage of population with food insecurity, and had a higher than national average percentage of people with very low food insecurity.
That number is growing, according to Jason Hall, the director of The Emergency Food Assistance Program through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. His program distributes food provided by the USDA to the various food pantries around the state. So far this year, the federal government has sent about 3.6 million pounds of food to Maine and it still is not enough to meet the increasing need in every county in the state. That federal food includes both commodities, such as cheese, corn, cereals and powdered milk, and “bonus food,” such as meat from animals killed because of the drought that affected other parts of the country this year.
He has heard reports that need has increased at local food pantries by about 50 percent in “nearly every small town in Maine.”
“Hunger is a byproduct of poverty,” he said. “If everyone was employed and making a decent wage, we wouldn’t have people going to soup kitchens or food pantries.”
He said that if 15 percent, or more than 200,000, Mainers are in need, that has big implications.
“One in six people in Maine don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or skip a meal so their kids can eat, or have to choose between paying for prescriptions and food, or fuel for your car and food,” Hall said. “What’s amazing is that food is always the first thing to go from your budget. It’s staggering, the choices people have to make.”
He described “a perfect storm” of factors that is making the problem of hunger in Maine more acute: the Great Recession, which increased the needs of people who lost their jobs or otherwise started slipping through the ever-widening cracks; improved food packaging and transportation, which has decreased the numbers of dented and dinged cans which make their way to soup kitchens and food pantries; and the nonprofit world has become “more cutthroat,” Hall said.
“Instead of five nonprofits applying for a grant, now there are 50,” he said.
That means the state’s soup kitchens are competing against each other for shrinking funding.
“The money is kind of disappearing. The food is disappearing. But the need is increasing every day,” he said.
In order to make up for that loss of the usual sources of food and funds, food pantries have to be creative, Hall said. They are relying more upon the generosity of community members, with donated cash going further to end hunger than the dropping off of cans of food.
“Money makes the world go round,” Hall said. “If you give a pantry a dollar, they can buy two cans of tuna fish at the food bank.”
Also, it’s helpful to have a farmer or two in the food pantry loop.
“In Maine, we still have a lot of generous farmers looking out for their communities,” he said.
Two such farmers unloaded hefty boxes filled with carrots and butternut squash this week outside of the Belfast Soup Kitchen. The produce was blemished just enough to mean it couldn’t be sold at stores, said Joan Bowen of Cross Patch Farms in Morrill.
“We thought instead of throwing it — food pantry,” she said.
The vegetables were added to the assortment of summer squash, kale, mushrooms, limes, fresh basil and grapes that were donated primarily by the Belfast Hannaford.
One man waited in line to pick up bread, potatoes and something sweet for dessert. He said that he and his girlfriend have four kids at home.
“This is a big, big help,” he said of the free food.
Alex Allmayer-Beck, the director of the Belfast Soup Kitchen, said that while the nonprofit has had some financial struggles recently, in the last month it has “stabilized.” Now, instead of wondering how to make sure it stays open into the near future, he is more worried about locating the hungry people in Waldo County and making sure they get help.
“There are people out there who are in need,” he said. “We’ve networked with all the churches, the police departments, general assistance. If there’s somebody in the county — some woman who’s eating dog food — I want my phone to ring. This is how we’ve started to do things. We have had some positive results.”
For more information about The Emergency Food Assistance Program, please visit the website www.maine.gov/agriculture/co/tefap/