April 1, 2013

More Mainers strain to put food on table

The need for assistance from food pantries and meal programs is called 'unrelentingly high.'

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SACO - By the time Eleanor Locey pays her bills, there's not enough money left over for food.

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Bob Nichols helps run the Saco Food Pantry, which was used by 6,100 people in 2006 but more than 9,500 last year.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Volunteer George Coburn assists Eleanor Locey of Saco select groceries at the Saco Food Pantry last week.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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She relies on Social Security but her income is too high to qualify for food stamps. So once a month the 77-year-old retired bus assistant drives to the Saco Food Pantry to load her trunk with the groceries she needs to feed herself and her disabled son.

"As a senior citizen, I don't make enough money to pull me through," Locey said last week after selecting enough food for 24 meals from the pantry shelves and freezers.

Locey finds herself in a growing group of seniors and working families turning to southern Maine food pantries and soup kitchens for help, often for the first time. Despite new records set in the stock market and other signs the economy is recovering from the recession, the number of Mainers unable to feed their families continues to rise, according to the agencies trying to feed them.

"They're seeing more families, more children and more seniors coming through their doors. The face of hunger today is much different than before the recession in 2008," said Clara McConnell Whitney, communications and advocacy manager for Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which last year supplied 13 million pounds of food to food pantries and soup kitchens in Maine.

"People are talking about how the economy is turning around, but the people for whom the economy is turning around are not the people we're seeing at food pantries. It hasn't trickled down to that level yet."

Last year, for example, the York County Shelter Programs saw a 38 percent jump in the number of people seeking food assistance. People came from 28 of the county's 29 towns and cities, according to the agency.

Across the state, the need for assistance from food pantries and meal programs continues to be "unrelentingly high," Whitney said.

A variety of factors -- lower wages, unemployment, cuts in benefits -- drive people to seek food assistance, straining pantries and food programs that have long struggled to keep up with demand. Many of those people are from middle income backgrounds but have seen their incomes slashed by unemployment or reductions in work hours and pay and are running out of savings.

About 26,000 people in York County -- or 13 percent of the population -- don't have access to enough food to ensure adequate nutrition, a situation referred to as "food insecurity" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The need for help is evident in the number of Mainers qualifying for food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A record 252,000 Mainers relied on the federally funded food aid during an average month in 2012, a 56 percent increase from before the recession in 2007.

However, many of the people now flowing into food pantries earn too much to qualify for food stamps.

Of the nearly 90,000 people in Maine's 1st Congressional District who are considered food insecure by the federal government, 61 percent have an income high enough that they don't qualify for food stamps. Someone who is food insecure has a limited or uncertain supply of food.

Nationwide, 17.2 million households -- that's one in seven people -- are facing hunger, the highest number of food insecure Americans ever recorded, according to the World Hunger Education Service.

"We see people who have worked their entire lives, who were living the American dream, who are now struggling," said Carol Davis, president of the Old Orchard Beach Community Food Pantry. "These are not the traditional poor people. These are people who want to work and support their families but can't find the jobs."

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Food stamps

Do you think the federal government should raise the income level at which a household would be eligible for food stamps?

Yes

No

View Results