A multimillion-dollar food distribution network is expanding in Maine to meet the needs of more than 200,000 residents who otherwise would be hungry, a condition that’s worsening despite an overall improving economy.
Federal figures show the level of food insecurity, a measure of a household’s inability to afford enough food throughout the year, has been escalating in Maine to a level that’s the highest in New England and above the national average. The latest government survey shows roughly 16 percent of Maine households are food-insecure, compared to a national average of 14 percent. Hunger relief advocates blame a combination of reasons, including stagnant wages, Maine’s higher cost of living and an aging population.
In response, a parallel food-supply system is ramping up on a scale that rivals a major supermarket chain. The system distributes food to more than 600 food pantries, meal programs and other partner agencies from Kittery to Madawaska, which provide it free of charge to hungry residents. They include 252 food pantries, 115 schools, 59 meal sites or soup kitchens, and 11 homeless shelters.
“We’re moving increasingly to two populations,” said Mark Lapping, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine who has worked on food policy issues. “One can afford to buy what it wants. The other can’t, and is highly dependent on these institutions and agencies to obtain food.”
Lapping and others say this growing division over access to food is creating a semi-permanent bureaucracy that resembles federal school lunch programs, which began after World War II to help feed hungry children and remain vital today.
“This alternative food system isn’t something that’s going away,” Lapping said. “It’s becoming institutionalized.”
The operation in Maine is being spearheaded by the Good Shepherd Food Bank, the largest food bank in northern New England. The nonprofit agency has spent roughly $2 million over the past few years to buy and upgrade warehouses, build cold storage facilities and purchase trucks. It expects to spend another $2 million or more over the next five years.
Good Shepherd distributed more than 23 million pounds of food last year in this alternative network. The agency had estimated that it would take until 2017 to reach that volume. It’s now revising projections through 2025, to account for faster-than-anticipated demand. Most of the food it receives is donated, and much of it comes from leading retailers such as Hannaford Bros. supermarkets and Wal-Mart. The donation entitles the grocers to a tax deduction, and it also reduces the tipping fees they would have to pay for the weight of any food that is hauled to an incinerator or landfill.
Increasingly, the donations are made up of fresh food, such as fruit and vegetables.
Good Shepherd today is a far cry from when founders JoAnn and Ray Pike set up a food bank in their Auburn home in 1981 and raised $6,000 during a Palm Sunday walk-athon.
“We’re no longer for emergencies,” said Kristen Miale, Good Shepherd’s president. “We’re a regular supplier of people’s food. When new donors see what we do, the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘I had no idea.’ They had no idea of the scale and scope.”
STACKS OF FOOD 34 FEET HIGH
The scale and scope of Good Shepherd are evident at the food bank’s hub in Auburn, a few days before Christmas. The 53,000-square-foot building was humming, with staff members and volunteers emptying and inspecting hundreds of supermarket boxes of dry food. Five days a week, incoming food moves along a conveyor to a room where workers sort it into 50 categories. They fill boxes that include tomato sauce, pasta, rice and vegetable oil, which are scanned into a computer for inventory and placed on pallets for a trip to the warehouse.
There, food is stacked 34 feet high on racks. Some staples, such as canned vegetables, canned milk, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, are purchased from manufacturers by Good Shepherd to supplement donations.
Vehicles arrive daily from food pantries and meal programs picking up their orders, which are weighed on a floor scale. While they are in Auburn, program volunteers also may sort through food that Good Shepherd is trying to move out, because it’s approaching the end of its shelf life.
Last year, Good Shepherd received a $1 million grant from the Next Generation Foundation. The money paid for a 3,500-square-foot refrigerated addition to the Auburn warehouse, reflecting a shift from canned goods to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2014, one-third of distributions were fresh produce.
In one storage room, boxes of apples are waiting to be turned into apple sauce. Another room holds pallets of carrots from Aroostook County. A third is filled with potatoes, squash, cabbage and tomatoes. More than 2 million pounds of produce were bought from or donated by Maine farmers in 2014.
Inside a booth in the warehouse, workers monitor a bank of desktop computers. The computers have GPS routing software provided by Feeding America, a national umbrella organization of nonprofit food banks that includes Good Shepherd. It helps coordinate the nine-truck fleet that Good Shepherd uses to move food around the state.
Outside, a worker was loading the mobile food truck, which travels to communities that may need extra help. On this day, the truck was headed to a church in Dover-Foxcroft, where a food pantry recently closed.
Auburn also helps move food to distribution centers in Biddeford and Brewer. The 7,400-square-foot Brewer warehouse serves northern and eastern Maine, but it’s too small. Last fall, Good Shepherd spent $600,000 to buy a former newspaper printing plant in Hampden. It plans to invest $2 million to gut the building and create a 32,000-square-foot cold storage facility and food warehouse.
‘THE NUMBER … KEEPS GOING UP’
Food from Good Shepherd ends up in Maine’s poorest communities, but also in towns where residents are more likely to sit at a restaurant than stand at a food pantry. One destination is Falmouth, where the median household income is $111,000, more than twice the state average.
“Many people have said, ‘Really, Falmouth?’ ” said Nancy Lightbody, a manager at the Falmouth Food Pantry.
The pantry started 30 years ago when a school nurse brought food in her car. Now it’s located in the old police station next to town hall, where it recently expanded. The pantry served an average of 425 families last year, which is 21 percent more than in 2014, Lightbody said. It provided food for 108,000 meals in 2015, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.
“The number, unfortunately, keeps going up,” she said.
Twice a week, volunteers pick up donated food at the Hannaford supermarket in West Falmouth. The pantry also buys some food at a nominal fee – no more than 16 cents per pound – from Good Shepherd, and gets donations from partners ranging from Wal-Mart to area schools and churches.
The pantry attracts residents from Falmouth, Cumberland, Westbrook and Portland. To be eligible for assistance, residents are asked to fill out an information form against standards in a USDA program meant to supplement the diet of low-income Americans. Maine got $1.1 million in food and administration costs for the program last year, based on the state’s jobless rate and number of people living below the poverty line.
Clients are limited to two visits a month. Roughly one-third are seniors on a fixed income, Lightbody estimated.
Some of those residents also may find help on the outskirts of Portland at the Stroudwater Food Pantry, which opened in August at the Stroudwater Christian Church and is growing rapidly. This is a blog entry on the pantry’s Facebook page on Jan. 7, from the coordinator, Doug Horner:
“Hi team: Yesterday your Stroudwater Food Pantry served 48 families, accounting for 139 people being fed. We had six new families this week, bringing us to a total of 179 households that are registered with us. Our Hannaford pickup consisted of 361 pounds of food.”
One of those families was Christine Kaiser’s.
Kaiser said she’d like to be working. But the South Portland single mother has two young boys with autism who need more of her time. She receives food stamps and the disability payments for the boys, but she said she still needs Stroudwater and a food pantry in her hometown to help offset the cost of rent, a car and her children.
“I call it my house of cards,” she said. “You have to shuffle.”
Kaiser said she might be able to put food on the table without help, if she served only starchy food, such as noodles. But she wants her children to get healthy meals, and said she very much appreciated getting some roast beef from Horner to make a few meals. Cereal for the kids, Swiss cheese and fresh peppers also went into her bag this day.
“It’s not just at Christmas,” she said about the people waiting in line. “It’s an issue year-round for us.”
Food pantries are a fixture in Washington County, where good jobs are scarce. In Calais, the client base at the Chadbourne Ecumenical Food Pantry has grown from 135 families in 2007 to 800 today. A few more people arrive every week, displaced by the closures of some smaller pantries in eastern Washington County.
“It’s a mix of seniors, young people not working and the working poor, those in service jobs that pay the minimum wage,” said David Sivret, the food pantry’s president.
Sivret said area towns don’t contribute to the pantry and he depends on private donations and local retailers, mostly Wal-Mart and the former Calais Shop n’ Save, now Tradewinds Marketplace. While some pantries see a greater demand in the winter, as residents struggle with heating bills and the loss of seasonal jobs, Sivret says the traffic in Calais is constant year-round.
ONE IN SEVEN MAINERS SEEK RELIEF
Communities as different as Falmouth and Calais share some common themes captured in a 2014 survey by Good Shepherd.
It found that one in seven Mainers turn to local hunger relief agencies at some point of the year. A quarter of them were 60 or older and more than a quarter were younger than 17.
Six in 10 clients worked during the past year. One in four clients had an average household income ranging from $10,000 to $20,000. Nearly as many earned less than $10,000.
Health issues contributed to need. Four in 10 clients reported high blood pressure. A quarter had unpaid medical bills. Another quarter reported no health insurance.
Many must choose between buying food or paying other expenses. Seven in 10 named utilities; roughly six in 10 mentioned medication and half flagged transportation.
These responses suggest to Miale that Maine’s falling jobless rate and small gains in personal income aren’t enough to blunt the cost of food, energy, housing and health care. She also noted that more than 9,000 Mainers lost food-stamp benefits last year as part of an effort by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage to encourage healthy adults without children to find work or enter job training.
“It’s hard to find free gas for your car,” Miale said. “But you can go to a food pantry, and at least that’s one less expense you have.”
‘NOBODY SHOULD HAVE TO STAND IN LINE’
Whatever the causes, food insecurity is rising in Maine, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its 2014 survey showed Maine’s level rose from 15.1 percent of the population in 2013 to 16.2 percent in 2014. Maine was ranked 12th in the nation and first in New England for food insecurity. The national average was 14 percent. Maine’s neighbor, New Hampshire, was 10 percent.
Maine’s unmet need is reflected in a four-year strategic plan updated last year by Good Shepherd that’s based on several conclusions. One is that the agency’s mission has changed from responding to a temporary emergency to addressing chronic hunger. Another is that the high cost of fresh fruit, vegetables and protein has transformed the hunger problem in Maine from a lack of access to calories to a lack of access to nutritious food. That realization also has turned hunger into a health issue, as poor food choices contribute to obesity, Type II diabetes and other illnesses.
The growing focus on nutrition also is making it more expensive for Good Shepherd to buy and store perishable food, making it necessary to redesign how fresh food is collected and distributed.
This expansion plan has led to some mixed feelings, Miale acknowledged.
“It’s a little cynical, but for the foreseeable future, we’re going to be here,” she said. “We shouldn’t be here. Food banking isn’t the solution to hunger. We do good work, but nobody should have to stand in line and be given a box of food.”
This story was updated at 10:45 a.m., Jan. 25, to correct the number of schools served by the food distribution network.