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Piscataquis County may not be at the epicenter of Maine’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic — as of Sunday there is only one positive test among its 16,800 residents.
That’s not to say the impact of the coronavirus stops at the county line, including the food insecurity that comes with rapidly expanding unemployment around the state.
When Karen King helped distribute food at the Dover-Foxcroft Food Cupboard in January, she and her staff served 85 families.
When COVID-19 and the associated stay-at-home mandates and job cuts arrived in mid-March, that number skyrocketed to 140 and would have stayed about the same in early April except distribution day came just after heavy snow knocked out the power — as well as family refrigerators and freezers — in much of the region.
For King, the food cupboard’s operations manager, the challenge wasn’t so much providing enough food to meet the increased demand, but being able to acquire enough food in bulk from her primary sources.
“That’s a little different than I’m used to, because I usually can order and if we serve a hundred on average I can get a hundred of something,” she said. “Now the inventory is so uncertain.”
That challenge isn’t expected to change in the coming weeks, leaving both King and Erin Callaway always planning ahead.
“We know people are getting furloughed or laid off or losing their jobs entirely,” said Callaway, executive director of the Piscataquis Regional Food Center, an independent non-profit organization working in partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank whose distribution area includes food cupboards in Dover-Foxcroft, Dexter, Greenville, Milo and Sangerville.
“Maybe they’re able to manage well enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to recover from that. We will see a surge in need when people really start to feel the impact of losing that income.”
The threat of food insecurity also is being felt higher up the supply chain, as food banks that provide local cupboards much of their inventory must compete with retail stores trying to satisfy frenzied consumer demand fostered by coronavirus concerns.
“I think it has everything to do with that,” said Good Shepherd Food Bank president Kristen Miale. “Hannaford has always been our biggest supporter — they have been fabulous through this — and what they’re saying is that the supply chains have been meant to deal with regular purchasing volumes and if people were just doing their regular purchasing everything would be fine.
“Instead they’ve said every shopping day [now] is like the week of Christmas all over again,” she said.
The Good Shepherd Food Bank is the state’s largest hunger relief organization, distributing food from its centers in Auburn and Hampden to more than 450 partner agencies around Maine.
Last year it distributed more than 26 million meals to families, children and seniors in need throughout the state, but that task has grown much more difficult — and costly — so far this year.
Good Shepherd typically buys about $1.5 million worth of food during an entire year, Miale said, but amid the current health and economic crisis it has spent nearly $2 million in the last two weeks alone.
“It’s been incredibly challenging,” she said. “Normally 70 percent of the food we distribute is donated food that comes primarily from retailers, but that channel is down about 50 percent and what’s been particularly challenging has been getting ‘shelf-stable’ food.
“People want pasta, rice, cereals, spaghetti sauce, all those things that are difficult for anyone to get at the grocery store today,” she added. “Those supply chains are jammed and we are absolutely feeling the effects of that.”
Such frustration hasn’t stemmed from lack of effort.
“Mainers have been incredibly generous to the food bank these past few weeks, but now we’re finding that even though we have money we can’t even buy food,” Miale said. “We have several orders that are out — many won’t be coming in until late May and June. We had three loads canceled this week, so we estimate that we’re going to be out of shelf-stable food next week.”
Miale said part of the solution may come from manufacturers’ efforts to adapt to the current shopping binge.
“We’ve been told they have adjusted and we’re hoping we’re going to start to see the effects of that with them really ramping up production,” she said. “They’re doing things like sidelining some of the more ancillary products and focusing on core staples. We’re hoping we’re going to start to see that effect but right now it’s challenging.”
Miale backed a letter sent by Gov. Janet Mills to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue this week urging the USDA to coordinate a nationwide strategy to address gaps in the supply chain.
“What we’d really like to see is for the USDA to step in and proactively get food for the charitable food networks,” she said. “We should have enough food to go around. We just need people to stop the hoarding and we need to make sure the charitable food network is able to secure what we need.
“Normally we wait to see it trickle through and we get the leftovers, but when there are no leftovers, then we need to figure out another way to get food.”
Miale said surveys have indicated an increase in Mainers accessing food pantries of between 10 and 100 percent since the arrival of the coronavirus, with a particular rise in Cumberland County, the state’s most populous county.
“We’re definitely seeing a spike in demand and when we get this week’s survey, I have the feeling the numbers are going to be even higher,” she said.
Miale added that the Good Shepherd Food Bank continues to benefit from the public’s largesse in its effort to address the food insecurity issue, including some stimulus-related donations it received this week.
“The government checks are starting to be issued, and we received dozens of donations — many of them $1,200 — from people saying that they didn’t need it and that other people need it more,” she said. “That’s saying something.”
Uncertainty about when the pandemic and its economic fallout might abate leaves Maine’s charitable food community concerned that the end of the crisis may not be near.
“We’re doing our best to be ready for that and to help our community partners, the food cupboards around the county and in Dexter, to be ready,” Callaway said.
“And if we’re so lucky that it doesn’t occur, well, we’re still ready.”