People began lining up just after 9 a.m. Thursday outside Preble Street’s food pantry, waiting for the doors to open four hours later.

But even as Preble Street, a multi-service agency serving homeless and low-income residents in the Portland area, sees demand rising for its food pantry and three soup kitchens, federal funding that helps buy those meals has been slashed.

“We are overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming for a meal,” said Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director. “We can’t sustain these kinds of lifesaving programs when the federal government is not participating in helping us do that.”

It’s a federal funding cut that U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud say has hit agencies like Preble Street across the state.

While part of the problem is a reduction in the amount of money going to a federal emergency food and shelter program, the two Maine Democrats are lobbying the Obama administration to change a funding formula that they say has produced disproportionately large cuts for Maine because it discriminates against heavily rural states.

Preble Street will serve 500,000 meals this year, with demand up 35 percent since March 2010, Swann said. In August, Preble Street and other agencies throughout Maine learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was drastically cutting the amount of emergency food and shelter program money it would hand out for this fiscal year.

For Preble Street, that meant the loss of its previous FEMA food and shelter program allotment of $31,500 — a 27 percent cut in the $118,000 in local and federal funding the agency had been receiving. That put a significant dent in the budget of Preble Street, which struggles to assemble the approximately $1 million it needs to buy those 500,000 meals.

Pingree and Michaud say Maine lost more than $467,000 in FEMA emergency food and shelter program funding, a 57 percent decline from last year. Other New England states’ funding declined by just 34 percent, the lawmakers say.

Four Maine counties — Cumberland, York, Waldo and Sagadahoc — were dropped from receiving money from the program, Pingree and Michaud said.

The lawmakers have written a letter to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate protesting the level of cuts, noting that federal data shows that Maine has a higher level of people experiencing “hunger insecurity” than 44 other states and has more people experiencing hunger than all other New England states.

They want Fugate to consider shifting some of this year’s dollars to Maine, though they acknowledged that may be tough to do, given the cuts nationwide.

Pingree and Michaud are urging Fugate to overhaul the formula used to allocate the money for the next fiscal year.

“The formula used must more appropriately identify the true need in states like Maine,” they wrote.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC.