Portland has gained a national reputation as a “foodie” town, where the latest restaurant openings are followed with interest. Less publicized, in a city which also had 14 food pantries or free meal programs last year, was the launch of a new place that’s attracting a loyal following.

It happened last August, when members of the Stroudwater Christian Church in Portland sensed a need in their suburban corner of the city, which borders Westbrook. So they started a modest food pantry. By the end of December, they were regularly serving 173 families every Wednesday afternoon.

“We went from zero to 173 in 21 weeks,” said Doug Horner, coordinator of the Stroudwater Food Pantry.

The response has been sobering for Horner, who has met local residents who haven’t eaten in a couple of days and were hungry enough to tear open a package of food while he was filling their bags with groceries.

“It’s a hidden problem,” he said of hunger in Maine. “There’s a huge, latent demand that hasn’t been met.”

Some of the forces driving that demand come into focus while speaking to people who lined up at the pantry at noon on a recent Wednesday.

Elizabeth and Kevin Leonard have full-time jobs, but they say they don’t earn enough to make ends meet. They both work a night shift at Dunkin’ Donuts, where Elizabeth is paid $9.60 an hour, and Kevin makes $9.

They own their home in a Westbrook trailer park but have a hard time paying rent, utilities and transportation.

“You have to decide what to pay, your rent or your food,” Elizabeth Leonard said. “If it wasn’t for this place, we wouldn’t have food.”

The Leonards were standing in line, waiting for Horner to serve them. When it was their turn, he offered them chicken and hot dogs, explaining that the pantry didn’t have any hamburger on this day. They also accepted cheese, peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meat sauce, cereal and noodles. On their way out, they passed a table where they were able to choose one each of four fresh-food categories donated that morning by the Hannaford Bros. supermarket in Westbrook. The Leonards took a bag of tomatoes, oranges, a blueberry pie and bread.

The Leonards have been coming to Stroudwater for a month, a visit made possible because they now have a 12-year-old car and don’t have to rely on the bus. They are making payments to the friend who sold them the car.

“It needs work, but it gets us from point A to point B,” Kevin Leonard said.

Gert Fogg of Westbrook said she had worked at Marden’s for 10 years, but had to leave after an illness and hasn’t been employed in three years. Her husband is a sign maker, but he doesn’t make enough money to pay for rent, utilities and a car.

Fogg’s box contains cereal, pasta and chicken, which she said she hasn’t eaten for a long time. She adds apple pie and bread at the fresh-food table.

“I was ashamed to come here at first, but I’m not now,” Fogg said. “When you need help, you need it.”

Clients at the pantry, mostly Portland and Westbrook residents, are asked to provide intake information, including their name and address, the number of people in their household and their ages. They also sign in when they come to the pantry, to track demand.

So far, the pantry is attracting a clientele that mirrors statewide observations. It’s a mix of people with some form of government assistance, such as disability payments and food stamps, but who don’t collect enough to pay all their bills and buy enough food. Roughly half, Horner estimates, are split between single mothers with children and elderly residents on a fixed income.

The demand has prompted Stroudwater to develop its first strategic plan, which will include food drives and fundraising.

“We’re moving from a start-up to a medium-size food pantry,” Horner said.