PORTLAND – By now, we are all too aware of the Great Recession’s legacy. Economic buzzwords tell of the damage — “fiscal cliff,” “underwater homeowners,” “bailout,” “underemployed.” Many people are hurting, and many of those hurting are hungry — including many of our neighbors in Maine.
The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture illustrate the depth of Maine’s hunger problem:
• 14.7 percent of Maine households are food insecure, which means that about 200,000 people have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
• The number of Maine people facing hunger has increased 25 percent since 2005.
• Maine ranks 18th in the nation and second in New England in terms of food insecurity, and first in New England in terms of food insecurity for children.
Behind these grim statistics are the faces we see every day at Wayside Food Programs. These faces of hunger take many forms: young children, seniors, teens, the disabled, the homeless and the working poor — a cross section of our community.
However, while the most visible face of hunger is often the homeless, the problem goes beyond shelters. Hunger is found in homes and apartments, where the need is less visible. At Wayside, we see families cutting back on food because of increases in heating and housing costs, and we know that some seniors must make the difficult decision of choosing to pay for either food or medicine.
The cost of hunger is great, from both moral and practical standpoints. For example, consider how hunger contributes to health care costs and the strain on medical services.
With food dollars at a premium, it can be difficult for individuals and families to access healthy food. High-carbohydrate, filling foods are often chosen rather than fruits and vegetables. These diet decisions are especially harmful to children and help contribute to growing diabetes and obesity rates, which contribute to the strain on health care systems.
Unfortunately, hunger is expected to get worse. Federal, state and local governments are facing difficult budget decisions, with discussions of across-the-board cuts that put hunger relief funding at risk. Additionally, the USDA expects an increase in food prices, due, in part, to this year’s droughts, and our badly needed economic recovery is painfully slow, especially in Maine.
As a result, local hunger relief organizations are being squeezed at a time when there is a growing need for help. There is a greater demand with fewer resources.
In order to do more with less, hunger organizations are working hard to achieve efficiencies through partnerships with other nonprofits and with businesses, and by taking action to improve internal efficiencies. For example, Wayside recently invested in the consolidation of our operations (kitchen, warehouse and administration) to cut costs.
To fight hunger in Maine, local organizations are using an array of strategies, including:
• Community meals, where healthy weekly meals are served in familiar surroundings.
• Mobile food pantries, where food is delivered to sites for people who have limited access to transportation.
• Food pantries.
• Food rescue, where businesses work with hunger agencies to distribute overstocked food.
• Soup kitchens.
These and many other services are dependent on government funding, community support and, above all, innovation. However, improved efficiencies and innovation are not enough. Your help is needed.
For those interested in helping, the primary ways to support relief organizations include contributions of financial aid, food and volunteer hours. As hunger organizations strive to develop better ways to reach Maine’s hungry, the core of our work continues to reside with supporters and volunteers.
Fortunately, Maine has proven itself committed to helping others. The state ranks 12th in the U.S. in volunteering, and first in volunteering for teens, according to a December report from Volunteering and Civic Life in America.
Volunteers can help by unloading and loading trucks, stocking and sorting food donations, cooking, running food drives and much more. In fact, our work at Wayside has been made possible by more than 15,000 volunteer hours this year, through November.
The dedication of volunteers is an inspiration. We work with a number of volunteers who once received help and who are now running pantries to help others. In addition, we know of volunteers with limited means whose contribution comes in the form of hard work.
To find out how you can help fight this complex problem and to learn about the work that is being done in your community, I encourage you to contact a local hunger relief agency.
Mary Zwolinski is executive director of Wayside Food Programs.