Hunger forces people to adopt meal-stretching strategies. Some are modern, such as purchasing fast or processed food or eating food past its expiration date. And some homesteading traditions — such as canning vegetables — are filling crucial gaps.
That’s what Joan Jourden, 80, of central Aroostook County is doing. She’s relying heavily on home canning she did in 2002 to eat today.
“It’s a good thing I like pickles,” she said. “We canned a lot of pickles that year.”
She also canned a lot of meat stews and soups, and she said she now has to use caution when planning meals around that canning.
“Some of it has gone bad,” she said. “So I open up a can, check it, and if it’s bad, I have to toss it out and open another jar.”
Jourden’s story is one that breaks the heart of Dorothy Sines, wellness nutrition director for the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, and one that reflects the food insecurity realities faced by many Maine seniors.
“These are tough, hardworking people doing what they can with what they have,” Sines said, shaking her head at the idea of relying on 14-year-old pickles. “As an agency, we try to do what we can to help them stretch those limited food dollars and resources.”
Sines sees the faces of Maine’s elderly, hungry residents every day.
“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “And it’s a multifaceted one.”
It also is fact of life for more than 208,000 Mainers. Some 16.2 percent of all households struggle to afford enough quality food and often skips meals, which makes Maine today the ninth hungriest state in the country, according to USDA data.
“Maine was at 12 in the country [last year], up from 21 the year before, [and] now the latest data is out and we’ve cracked the top 10.” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “We are the ninth hungriest state in the nation — Maine is heading in the wrong direction.”
Another data set, the national Hunger in America census, gauges hunger in Maine every four years. Between 2013 and 2014, the survey found 68 percent of relief agencies saw an increase in the number of clients served.
In that year, Good Shepherd Food Bank and its partners provided more than 19 million meals statewide. That broke down to helping 38,100 people per week or 165,400 per month.
Miale said there was a need for 11 million more meals that went unmet.
“We think it’s even worse than the census shows,” Miale said. “If anything, we know that hunger is often underreported because people are asked to ‘self identify’ as food insecure.”
Marilyn Lennon, 80, relies on the local food pantry and the fresh summer vegetables donated by Aroostook County-based Friends of Aroostook.
“It really helps from around July to September,” Lennon said. “Buying food is so expensive I really need that extra help, and I do look forward to it every year.”
Lennon said she makes the fresh produce last longer by freezing and home canning.
“I canned 24 jars of zucchini relish last night,” she said, digging in her purse. “Oh, I thought I had some with me I could give you to try, I’m sorry.”
That spirit of sharing among the seniors makes their food insecurity situation all the more heartbreaking, Sines said.
“They are going hungry, [and] some of them talk about living through the Great Depression and what it was like with rationing food during World War II,” she said. “They say it’s like that now, or worse because they feel they are going without again, but this time not for a good cause.”
Is local food the answer?
Yet, in parallel to this trend, is Maine’s burgeoning local food movement. There are seemingly more available food options and providers than ever before. From school gardens, to senior farm shares, to food councils, helping hands are extended from many directions and connections are forming to link Maine’s local growers with the state’s hungriest citizens.
Sandy Gilbreath, project coordinator for Maine Food Strategy, said the solution to hunger is right under our feet.
“We have a disconnected, out of balance food system,” said Gilbreath. “There is so much opportunity. If we can use those resources in a more coordinated way we can make some big strides in solving these problems.”
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to view farming and local food as an answer to the hunger problem. But the reality can be more complicated, especially for small subsistence farmers around the state, who may not have much extra to share.
On 2 acres in Woolwich, not far from Route 1, Rob and Amber McFarland, are raising pigs, goats and chickens and growing tomatoes and zucchini while rearing three young children.
“We started it to feed ourselves,” said Rob McFarland, who grew up in the area and now lives in the house his grandfather built. The hard working couple have suffered a series of setbacks that threaten their ability to feed themselves.
Rob McFarland developed severe tendonitis while enlisted in the Coast Guard in the 1990s. He admits not being as proactive about his health as he could have been, and didn’t see a Veterans Administration doctor until years later, when the pain was so bad he couldn’t pick up his daughter. It was too late.
“I was taught as a good Maine boy to suck it up and deal with it and go to work,” said Rob McFarland, 45.
He wrapped up his wrist and found work as a boat builder and carpenter.
When the pain eventually prevented him from working as a carpenter, Rob McFarland taught himself to farm. Amber McFarland works 35 hours per week at Shaw’s. Their combined income last year was $17,000, and they must supplement their income with food stamps.
“I always make sure that my kids get food before I do. They are the important ones,” said Amber McFarland. “They need it for school. They need the nutrition to be smart, get an education. If I don’t get enough that’s fine. As long as I get something, have my coffee, and they get food in their bellies and have clean clothes, I am happy.”
Despite the lean times, they know others have it worse, and try to help when they can.
“A lot of people at work survive paycheck to paycheck,” said Amber McFarland. “[Rob and I] have been been giving food to people that we know need help. Every family that comes here becomes part of ours.”
“The garden helps provide,” said Rob McFarland. “If someone shows up and looks hungry, we give them some eggs. We know that they are in need, they are in the same boat as we are. It’s not a good place to be.”
Two years ago, the McFarlands explored Community Supported Agriculture for their Frog Hollow Farm but believe their location in Woolwich, on high-speed stretch on Route 1 between Bath and Wiscasset, hurt their chances.
Today, a program from Good Shepherd called Mainers Feeding Mainers, which supplies food pantries with fresh farm produce, has recently started paying farmers such as the McFarlands — and some 40 others — for their contributions.
Since 2010, according to Melissa Huston, director of philanthropy for the Good Shepherd Food Bank, participating farms and food producers have supplied close to 7 million pounds of fresh food to hungry Mainers.
Initially the food was donated, Huston said, but starting last year, Mainers Feeding Mainers began paying for it.
“In 2015 we invested $416,830 in local agriculture and farming businesses by purchasing 840,000 pounds of food at an average cost of 49 cents a pound,” Huston said. “We started to think about it and thought, ‘Why not purchase the food and help our farmers?’ It was a real light bulb moment.”
There was some initial concern that once farmers and growers began getting paid for their food, any donations would stop.
“We found out the case was quite the opposite,” Huston said. “We are not only seeing farmers donating additional food, but they are asking us ahead of time what we need so they can plant more.”
The impact is already showing, according to Huston.
“I had one farmer tell me he was able to send his kid to college because we were paying him,” she said. “Another farmer was able to build up a little business making apple sauce out of extra apples thanks to the income we provided.”
Nancy Perry, manager of Mainers Feeding Mainers, knows how hard it is for Maine’s small farmers to make a decent living.
“A bad season could probably break a lot of them. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, several of them would be in a very tight situation. They might have to reach out for help from the state,” said Perry.
And they have.
This season’s drought has been devastating for many farmers, including the McFarlands, whose hay crop has failed.
“Large farms of 500 acres are diverse enough to be doing other things. The small rural farmers are trying to make a go of it,” said Perry. “They are living off their land, too, but if they lose their crop, I would be nervous for them.”
A better food bank solution
In Maine, the efforts of Maine Food Strategy are supported by two potent regional organizations that are focused on growing local food systems: Food Solutions New England and The Henry P. Kendall Foundation of Boston.
In addition to mitigating hunger by helping Mainers increase access to healthy food and expanding educational programs, Maine Food Strategy also desires facilities built to preserve food by teaching best practices on storage to stem food waste.
Facilities are a limitation to the success of this initiative.
“We are limited to the number of farms we can contract with due to issues of managing fresh produce,” Huston said. “Our whole system was designed on cans and nonperishable food storage.”
To adapt, Good Shepherd Food Bank is converting space in its new Hampden food distribution warehouse — the former Bangor Daily News printing plant — and plans to eventually use up to half of the 40,000-square-foot warehouse for food storage and processing.
“Having a warehouse and distribution space in Hampden will centralize our operations in that part of the state,” Huston said. “It also allows for better distribution of food to northern Maine.”
Networks, linkages, distribution — these are the small advancements that could have a sizeable effect on stemming hunger in Maine.
“Working on food insecurity issues will naturally have a ripple effect and vice versa,” said Gilbreath, coordinator of Maine Food Strategy. “We can do more together than separated.”