Doug Horner has never seen so many people or so much food at the Stroudwater Christian Church Food Pantry in Portland.
“There’s been a huge demand for hunger relief in southern Maine,” the pantry director said. “A large number of the new people (coming to the food pantry) are folks who have lost their jobs or were laid off or furloughed. For the first time, perhaps ever, they found themselves in need of groceries, so they came to the pantry.”
Last year, the food pantry distributed 68 tons of food in southern Maine. This year, it’s on pace to distribute 88 tons of food. The number of families who came to the pantry between January and June jumped 37 percent over the same time period last year. More than 600 families now get food from the pantry on a regular basis. August was the busiest month of the year and Horner does not expect the need to subside.
Hunger relief programs across the state have seen a surge in the number of Mainers who need food assistance as they struggle with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A temporary expansion of unemployment insurance and food assistance benefits provided some measure of relief to families and food pantries during the summer, but the demand at food pantries and meal programs, and applications for public food assistance, have all started to increase again since the expiration of expanded unemployment on Aug. 1.
“Maine already had a heightened level of food insecurity compared to the rest of the country going into the pandemic,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the inequality that existed prior to it. We know the people who were most disproportionately affected by the pandemic were already vulnerable to begin with, including seniors, those with compromised health and communities of color.”
Food insecurity is measured by how many families don’t have consistent access to an adequate supply of nutritious food. Nationally, the food insecurity rate is 11.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In Maine, 13.6 percent of households are food-insecure, the highest rate in New England. Feeding America estimated this year that 173,080 people in Maine are struggling with hunger, including 47,460 children. That means 1 in 8 Mainers and 1 in 5 Maine children are food-insecure.
Advocates say food insecurity is one factor of the economic vulnerability many Mainers face as they deal with low wages and high housing and child care costs. Maine also has high poverty rates for both seniors and children, particularly among those from Maine’s tribes and Black and African American families.
The number of Mainers experiencing food insecurity is expected to rise dramatically this year.
“Across the board, the need is increasing,” said Erin Fogg, vice president of development at Good Shepherd. “We are anticipating the number of people who are experiencing food insecurity in Maine will grow by at least 40 percent during 2020.”
While Maine is especially vulnerable, it is not alone.
Feeding America, a nonprofit with a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, estimates 37 million people – that’s 1 in 6 Americans – are experiencing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
From March to June, food banks nationwide distributed more than 1.9 billion meals to people facing hunger, according to Feeding America. In March alone, food banks gave out 20 percent more food than in an average month. Feeding America predicts that if Americans continue to visit food banks at that rate, 6 billion meals will be distributed this year.
In the weeks after the first coronavirus case was reported in Maine and businesses and schools shut down, food pantries across the state saw a surge in new clients looking for assistance. At the same time, food pantries – many run by small contingents of older volunteers – had to scramble to adapt to social distancing and get food to clients who could not safely leave their homes.
And those hunger prevention programs also had to ensure they had enough food for everyone who needed it at a time when there were interruptions in the food supply chain. Many programs rely on donations from grocery stores, but those slowed or stopped while retailers struggled to keep up with the demand as customers stocked their pantries with shelf-stable food.
About 70 percent of the food Good Shepherd Food Bank distributes to its network of food programs is typically donated by food retailers and food manufacturers. As those donations dropped off, Good Shepherd shifted to purchasing more food wholesale, but ran into long delays on orders. The food bank ran out of shelf-stable food twice and spent $850,000 on Hannaford gift cards for food pantries to distribute directly to Mainers in need.
In Portland, Wayside Food Programs had to immediately pivot away from its usual direct programs, including weekly community meals, to focus on emergency services that met CDC guidelines. What emerged was a program to pack up to 700 boxes of emergency food per week for community partners to deliver to people’s homes, including members of communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In South Portland, a community meal shifted to a drive-thru model and now feeds hundreds of people each month.
“My feeling is it’s a serious need,” said Becky Morse, who helps coordinate a South Portland community meals program and mobile food pantry. “You see it in their face how much it is helping them.”
Hunger prevention advocates in Maine say enhanced unemployment insurance benefits of $600 per week and extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits paired with federal money for hunger programs were critical to meeting the need for food over the past six months. That extra income gave many people food security they did not previously have, according to advocates and pantry directors.
Requests for help have started rising again since the unemployment benefit ended last month, and agencies are bracing for the full impact.
“We’re holding our breath because we know those unemployment benefits went away on Aug. 1,” Miale said. “We’re not hearing about a big spike in need yet, but we’re anticipating that is coming.”
In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a 40 percent increase in benefits for SNAP households during the coronavirus pandemic. All households that received less than the maximum benefit got the emergency allotment supplement to bring them up to the maximum, which is $768 a month for a five-member family.
The number of people Maine enrolled in the food supplement program rose steadily in the early months of the pandemic, growing from over 167,000 in February to a peak of nearly 177,000 in May. In August, more than 161,000 individuals were enrolled.
Demand for public food assistance and financial aid spiked again immediately following the expiration of federal unemployment benefits on Aug. 1, according to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Applications for supplemental food assistance increased by 40 percent in the first week of August.
In addition, applications tripled for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash to pay for essential needs, the department said.
In the first full week of August, the state received more than 1,100 applications for supplemental food assistance and 178 TANF applications, the highest number since mid-May. The Office of Family Independence, which manages the programs, received 11,420 calls in early August, the highest weekly call volume since mid-April.
The fight against food insecurity in Maine was bolstered in several ways by funding and rule changes from the federal government. The USDA granted a nationwide waiver for school nutrition programs to allow schools more flexibility to get meals to children, including throughout the summer.
A total of nearly $3.5 million was awarded to two Maine food distributors to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which was established through the CARES Act to support farmers with up to $3 billion in purchases of fresh produce, dairy and meat to distribute to low-income Americans.
No Maine companies received funding during the first round of awards, but members of Maine’s congressional delegation urged USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to fix shortcomings in the program and help Maine farmers and anti-hunger organizations get food to food-insecure families. Native Maine Produce & Specialty Foods of Westbrook subsequently received $1.35 million to distribute 45,000 25-pound boxes of food. Maine Farmers Exchange in Presque Isle was awarded more than $2.14 million.
Combined, those contracts enabled the distribution of more than 10,000 food boxes per week for eight weeks. More than 1.8 million pounds of food was provided directly to Maine families.
Those distributions helped Maine avoid situations similar to other states where food banks were overwhelmed by people in need of food and did not have enough supplies.
“Maine did not have the impact that many of us saw on the national news. Some food banks had massive mobile food distributions where people drove up and waited for hours,” Miale said. “Our network never stopped operations. They never missed a beat. People who regularly went to food pantry could keep going. Our network really demonstrated how resilient they are and how much the people who volunteer at food pantries are willing to do what it takes to meet the needs of their community.”
A WIDER RANGE OF PEOPLE
In the days after Maine businesses and organizations were directed to close to prevent spreading the virus, the directors of the Richmond Area Food Pantry scrambled to get permission from the governor’s office to stay open as an essential business. They stopped letting people into the pantry to pick out their own groceries and switched to a drive-thru model. Volunteers now wear masks and gloves as they place boxes of food in clients’ cars.
Lauren Haven, co-director of the pantry, said she has seen a wider range of people coming to the pantry.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve had more of what I call the working poor,” she said. “These are folks who are trying to work, have minimum-wage jobs. Maybe they’ve lost employment or had some loss of income due to being downsized or laid off.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the pantry has seen a 10 percent increase in clients. But even with the no-contact pickup, some people won’t come because of fear of being exposed to the virus, Haven said.
“That number should be higher,” Haven said. “There are definitely more people out there who need help than are being served by the food pantry. Not everyone is getting the help they need.”
Like nearly every other food pantry in the area, the Stroudwater Christian Church Food Pantry pivoted to a drive-thru model to limit the number of people in the building and contact with volunteers. Instead of shopping for their own groceries in the pantry, each family now receives a standardized box with 35 to 45 pounds of food.
During the pandemic, the pantry launched a delivery service to get boxes of food to clients who were quarantined because they were sick with COVID-19, had been exposed or were caring for sick people.
Getting enough food to fill the boxes hasn’t been hard, Horner said, but recruiting enough volunteers has been a challenge. He also worries about how instability in the food supply chain could impact the pantry, especially if there are shortages of meat products.
At the Harrison Food Bank, volunteers have been distributing food to people who travel for up to an hour from three different counties to get a week’s worth of groceries. The pantry is now serving up to 500 families a week, up from around 300 before the pandemic hit. Sandy Swett, founder of the food bank, estimates those families include around 6,000 people, many of whom are going to a food pantry for the first time ever.
Swett said getting enough food to keep up with demand was difficult in the spring, but has been better in recent months, in large part because of access to local produce. Volunteers from the food bank collect donated food five days a week from nine Hannaford stores, four Walmarts, three Shaw’s supermarkets, one Sam’s Club, Wayside, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Western Farms and Pietree Orchard.
Swett worries about what will happen in the fall, when there is less local produce and demand for food assistance traditionally increases as families stretch their limited budgets to heat their homes.
“We haven’t seen the real problem with food insecurity yet,” Swett said. “It’s going to hit in the fall.”
Unlike other local food pantries, the Saco Food Pantry saw fewer clients during the first few months of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the pantry served an average of 190 households per week, while the average now is around 150 to 160.
But it was not because the need had lessened, said Toni Clark, a member of the board of directors. Many of the pantry’s clients are seniors who did not want to leave their homes. And Clark worries there are more people in the community who are facing food insecurity but won’t come to a food pantry because they are ashamed.
“We know for sure there are people out there who could take advantage of our pantry. That hurts to know,” she said. “The food is sitting here on the shelf waiting for them.”
The pantry teamed up with Age Friendly Saco to start a delivery service to get bags of groceries to clients who can’t come to the pantry. Last month, volunteers delivered food to 22 households in Saco and eight in nearby towns.
And the number of people coming to the pantry has started to climb. Since the beginning of September, nearly twice as many clients have been coming in each day than during August.
A CRITICAL RESOURCE
On Friday, Robert Tonge of Newfield pulled his car up to the door of the York County Shelter Programs Food Pantry in Alfred and chatted with a volunteer who loaded a box of food into the back seat. Tonge, who receives $25,000 annually from Social Security disability and $75 a month from SNAP, said the food pantry has been a critical resource to help him feed his family of four.
Tonge said he received an extra $300 a month from the expanded SNAP benefits, but also had extra household costs when his young daughter came to stay with him full time in March, when her New Hampshire elementary school switched to remote learning.
“We would not have made it without the supplemental food pantry,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the pantry averaged about 70 families per day. Now 110 to 115 families receive food each day the pantry is open and a growing number of them are young families, said pantry coordinator Mike Ouellette. In August, the pantry distributed an average of 5.2 tons of food per week.
Janet Anderson of Sanford said she lost income during the pandemic because it was difficult to get the supplies she needed for her work as a medical cannabis caregiver. As the price of meat and cheese went up, it became harder to feed her family of six. She worries others in the area can’t get to food pantries because they don’t have cars or feel badly about asking for assistance.
“People from all walks of life show up here,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing to be here.”
Christine Smith, who started volunteering at the pantry after first going there for food, said she’s noticed more families coming to the pantry for the first time ever.
“You see so many people with so many needs,” she said. “It’s sad, but it’s rewarding to see them get the help they need.”
The shelter partnered with Calvary Baptist Church in June on a meals program that provides lunch to anyone who needs it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It serves an average of 55 people per day, but some days meals have been given to as many as 77 people.
“So many families are experiencing loss of work or fewer hours. We wanted to be able to respond and provide in some way for the community,” said Megan Gean-Gendron, executive director of York County Shelter Programs.
But the meals kitchen has had to adapt several times in recent weeks as Sanford became a COVID-19 hot spot. In the past month, there have been outbreaks at the city’s fire department, Calvary Baptist Church and two private social clubs, the local American Legion hall and the Lafayette Club. There is also a major outbreak at the York County Jail in nearby Alfred, where the shelter program and food pantry are located.
Because of the outbreak at the Calvary Baptist Church, Gean-Gendron decided to move the meals kitchen from a socially distanced sit-down meal inside a church building to a takeout model. The shelter stopped using outside volunteers, including several from the church, to limit exposure for clients and staff. Pre-packed meals – and face masks for those who need them – are now handed out from a van to make distribution entirely contact-free.
Gean-Gendron said it is critical there is no interruption in the distribution of those meals while the shelter figures out a permanent plan for the program.
“We know meals like this offer folks the opportunity to eat a hearty meal and not make that choice between eating and paying their bills,” she said.
EFFICIENT EMERGENCY SERVICES
Before the pandemic hit Maine, Wayside Food Programs’ community meals were held weekly at several locations in Greater Portland to provide about 600 people with healthy meals, a sense of community and connections to other resources.
“The program is designed to fight social isolation,” said Rachel Freedman, Wayside’s manager of special projects and communication. “It’s about fighting hunger, but it’s also about strengthening our community.”
But as the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, it was clear it was not safe to hold community meals and operate other food programs in the same way they had been, said Freedman.
“It was scary at first,” she said.
Wayside pivoted to efficient emergency services to distribute food, which included packing 500 to 700 emergency food boxes each week, Freedman said.
Wayside also has grown its network to include partnerships with groups that provide resources to people in Maine who have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. Maine has had the nation’s largest racial disparity in coronavirus cases, with Black residents contracting COVID-19 at a rate more than 20 times that of white residents.
Baba Ly, assistant director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities of Maine, said a new partnership with Wayside provided a critical link to the immigrants and refugees his program works with in the Portland area. About 85 percent of them have pre-existing conditions and most had no access to transportation to go to grocery stores when bus service was suspended, he said.
Between March and August, the program distributed 448 food boxes – an average of 18 per week – to 33 clients who are older than 60. Most were facing food insecurity because they lost income or could not safely leave their homes, Ly said.
“This was really life-saving,” he said. “Without this, they were wondering how to go for groceries.”
In Lewiston, the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine helped distribute bags of food staples – including rice, beans, cooking oil, flour and dates for breaking fasts – to 940 families impacted by the pandemic as the community struggled with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
In South Portland’s west end, Becky Morse and a small group of volunteers are doing their best to make their weekly community meal feel normal, even though everything is different. Through a partnership between Wayside and Opportunity Alliance, Morse and several other neighborhood organizers had been serving about 75 meals every Tuesday night for nearly two years.
“That was going really great and then COVID hit,” Morse said.
A month after the meals stopped in March, they resumed with a completely new look: a drive-thru on Tuesday afternoons in the Brick Hill neighborhood. Volunteers now distribute around 160 meals each week to whoever drives up, regardless of where they live.
On a recent Tuesday, a van from Wayside backed up to the resource hub building at Brick Hill, packed with pre-packaged meals of chicken stir fry, fruit salad and carrot cake. Morse and fellow volunteer organizer Jennifer Lessard helped unload them, then rolled a table and cooler to the curb. They added a tiki umbrella and glittery pineapples for a festive touch.
One of the first people to show up for lunch on this day was Donna Young, who was pulling a red wagon borrowed from a neighbor. She took a slip of paper from her pocket that listed how many meals she needed to pick up to bring to people in the neighborhood who can’t leave their apartments. Some are elderly, others are mothers with young children, she said.
Before leaving on the first of two trips to deliver meals, Young said she does this each week simply to make sure her neighbors have what they need.
“My daddy always said, ‘Always do a good deed,’” she said. “I couldn’t let people go without.”