BOOTHBAY — Bonnie McKenney bustled around her kitchen, stirring a pan of diced peppers and onions for a frittata before slipping a batch of popovers out of the oven.

“Once I get in the kitchen and start cooking, I can’t stop,” she said. “I had to get these peppers cooked before they go bad. Waste not, want not.”

If it were summer, McKenney would likely be cooking kale grown by a local farmer and given away at a food pantry or green beans from the community garden where last year she helped the neighborhood kids grow vegetables. For the past eight years, the energetic 62-year-old grandmother has gone to the Boothbay Region Food Pantry each month for food to supplement what she can afford to buy on her limited disability checks and food stamps. McKenney is among nearly 200,000 Mainers, including 64,000 children and 45,500 seniors, who face hunger, according to the Good Shepherd Food Bank. She is grateful for the food the Boothbay program gives to her and others in the community, particularly the fresh, local produce.

As the number of hungry Mainers ticked steadily higher in recent years, hunger relief advocates increasingly have worked to connect food pantries and farmers. Those efforts, they say, are supporting local agriculture while giving low-income Mainers at risk of diabetes and other health issues better access to healthy food.

“Hunger exists in every community in our state,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd, the only food bank in the country to buy all of its produce from local farmers. “It’s more than just being uncomfortable and hungry. They forgo making quality choices at the grocery store. Fresh food tends to be more expensive.”

Those who work in hunger relief began to hear about how people reacted to fresh produce: There were children who were excited to try new vegetables and seniors who cried when they were given a bag of lettuce because a salad had long ago become a luxury. They also saw the connection between hunger and poor health – primarily high rates of diabetes and, counterintuitively, obesity – and knew there had to be a better way to feed people.

What has emerged is a growing farm-to-food pantry movement focused on improving the quality of food distributed through statewide and local programs.

Until recently, many food pantries gave away mostly shelf-stable food like macaroni and cheese or cereal, but that is changing as pantries receive larger deliveries of vegetables and frozen meat.

“Now, food pantries are working very hard to provide higher quality goods and fresh produce,” said Barbara Murphy, who oversees the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Harvest for Hunger Program.

Last year, Good Shepherd Food Bank distributed 6.8 million pounds of produce across the state, including 2 million pounds grown by Maine farmers. More than 240,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables were donated by gardeners through Harvest for Hunger, and the state’s Hunters for the Hungry program provided nearly 5,000 pounds of game meat to food pantries and soup kitchens.

“We hear from a lot of clients that the only place they can get fresh produce is at the pantry, because they can’t afford it at the grocery store,” Miale said. “The more healthy food we distribute, the more people want it. We’re debunking the myth that people from low-income houses don’t care as much about being healthy.”

HUNGER IN MAINE

A new study by Good Shepherd and Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, paints a startling picture of hunger in the state: More Mainers – especially children and seniors – are relying on the emergency food system while at the same time feeling the physical effects of poverty. Families faced with limited budgets are increasingly skipping meals and choosing inexpensive food that is less nutritious, contributing to higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.

“The results of this survey show us that the face of hunger is one we might recognize,” Miale said. “Many of our neighbors who are seeking food assistance have jobs, raise families, work toward education and struggle with health problems, like all of us. Too often, our clients also have to make difficult trade-offs to get enough food for their families.” The survey, released in October, found that 1 in 7 Mainers – an estimated 178,000 people – use food pantries and meal programs for food. Even more people likely face hunger but don’t seek help. More than 38,000 people are served each week by programs supported by Good Shepherd, according to the survey.

In half of households served by Good Shepherd-affiliated programs, the most-employed person is either working or looking for work. In the vast majority of the other half, residents are retired, disabled or caring for someone who is disabled.

“Contrary to what we often hear in public dialogue, our clients are either working and trying to scrape by, are retired, or are not able to fully participate in the work force due to a disability,” said Clara Whitney, communications and advocacy manager for Good Shepherd. “This is a problem that impacts working families and seniors in our state.”

The survey underscores the need to support the emergency food system and find a solution to the hunger problem, according to hunger relief advocates, while also showing the clear link between hunger and poor health.

According to the survey, 13 percent of households that used an emergency food program have at least one member in poor health. Members of households served by the food bank have a diabetes rate 30 percent higher than among Mainers overall, and 41 percent of households have a member with high blood pressure.

The study also found that 67 percent of clients report purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food in order to stretch their food budgets.

“A liter of Coke is 79 cents, but a gallon of milk is $4,” Miale said. “We’re seeing lower-income families having to buy less expensive food, which tends to be calorie-dense but nutrient-void. Now you have this paradox of being hungry and being obese on the same side of the coin.”

FARM TO PANTRY

At most food pantries in Maine, it is not unusual to find stacks of day-old cakes and breads, donated by grocery stores, along with produce and meat approaching the sell-by date. But many of those pantries now offer more fresh produce and meat than ever before.

While the 600 local agencies Good Shepherd serves through the Mainers Feeding Mainers program purchase most items at a discount, the food bank gives them produce for free. Good Shepherd’s “mobile food bank” also distributes boxes of fresh produce, frozen meat and dairy products in communities around Maine.

Mainers Feeding Mainers began in 2010 with a simple concept: get fresh produce to food pantries and support local farmers by buying their crops. Nine farms participated the first year.

The program has grown to include 33 farms across the state. Before each growing season, farmers sign a memo of understanding with Good Shepherd guaranteeing the food bank will buy a certain amount of produce. If one crop fails, the farmers can substitute a different crop.

Nancy Perry, the program director, said she heard from a farmer in York County who lost his entire apple crop because of a spring frost. When he called Good Shepherd to tell them about his problem, they worked out a deal to buy zucchini instead.

“He said he may have had to go under, and he would have been in line at the food pantry,” Perry said. “This helps keep them afloat.”

Last year, farmers also donated 1 million pounds of produce, matching the amount they sold to the food bank.

“All of them are so gracious and generous with us that every season they manage to donate. They’ll tell you how it feels good to be able to give back to their community,” Perry said. “It’s a win-win for Maine.”

GARDEN TO PANTRY

For more than 15 years, gardeners across the state have planted extra rows in their gardens or tended community plots to grow nearly 1.9 million pounds of produce for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Harvest for Hunger.

In most counties, produce from Harvest for Hunger is taken directly to food pantries to distribute. In Oxford County, the program hosts weekly distribution nights where 180 families pick up food, watch cooking demonstrations and sample food made with the produce they’re receiving that week.

Murphy, who oversees the program and works in Oxford County, said the feedback she gets from those families, who say they are changing their eating habits or better able to pay other household bills, is encouraging.

In York County, a coalition of advocates and farmers has found another way to connect seniors directly to local gardeners and farmers.

For the past three summers, Partners for a Hunger-Free York County has offered $50 farm shares and farmers market credits to low-income senior citizens. The program was so popular – with 312 seniors receiving fresh produce – that it was expanded to include “winter shares,” handed out in $25 grocery store gift cards.

The program is funded through grants and donations. Coordinating director Kristine Jenkins called it “a modest effort” that has helped seniors buy items like fruit, meat or milk – items that had become a “luxury” for some.

Jack McAdam, who owns McDougal Orchard in Springvale and organizes the Sanford and Springvale farmers markets, said about 80 seniors used their credit at the farmers markets last summer. That brought $4,000 into the market, split among a dozen vendors.

“Last year we had five older women who would go to McDonald’s for lunch, then come to the market to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables each week,” he said. “Most of them are living off of Social Security checks. This is extra money for them to spend on good food.”

Richard Page, 80, of Lebanon said he and his wife, Carlene, receive a total of $100 each summer to buy fresh produce.

“When it’s farm fresh, it’s awful nice,” he said. “This helps so we can buy fruit and vegetables and don’t have to go without.”

On weekly trips to the Springvale market last summer he spent his credit on apples, watermelon and summer squash, and he enjoyed chatting with the farmer.

“It’s like family,” he said. “You know everybody, and everybody knows you. It makes a big difference for our pocketbook and really helps the farmers market.”

IN THE KITCHEN

All of this fresh food at food pantries gives clients more choices each time they visit, an important step in addressing the stigma, according to hunger relief advocates. For many years, pantries offered clients prepared bags or boxes of food, divided up based on supply and stretched by volunteers to feed the most people possible. Now, many pantries are retooling their distribution to encourage clients to choose products they’ll actually use, with an emphasis on larger amounts of lean meat, produce and staples like beans and rice.

“It’s a way pantries can make the whole experience feel more natural for people and bring back the dignity of picking out their own food,” said Whitney, from the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The food pantry run by York Community Service Association reopened late last year with a new design that allows clients to “shop” for groceries as if they are in a small grocery store. In the summer, baskets overflow with vegetables donated by gardeners and gleaned from Spiller Farm in Wells. During the winter, the pantry buys produce to make sure there is enough to meet the demand of the 60 families who pick up food each week.

“We have some families who come just for produce,” said Michelle Surdoval, executive director of the association. “They can buy food, but produce is so expensive. Everyone else has that opportunity. Why shouldn’t they?”

In Boothbay, Bonnie McKenney always looks forward to checking out the produce at the food pantry. A diabetic who often cooks for her grandson and children in her neighborhood, she focuses on cooking the most nutritious food possible with the ingredients she gets.

“I think eating fruits and veggies is really important,” she said. “I always eye the produce table to see what they have for fresh vegetables.”

McKenney, who grew up working in restaurants in the Boothbay area, said she is lucky she knows how to stretch the food she receives and cook creative meals. She’s working on a cookbook of recipes using simple ingredients people often receive from food pantries, like pot pie made with canned chicken or soups using beans and root vegetables.

McKenney volunteers at the food pantry, helps with free community lunches and makes sure the seniors in her apartment complex get food from the pantry even if they can’t get there themselves. She often finds herself whipping up a meal or snack for friends or neighbors whose bellies need filling.

“No one should be hungry,” she said.