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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said there is a disconnect between the stock market being up and what the person on the street is experiencing.

"If you were poor before the recession, you're still poor now," he said. "If you were middle income before the recession, chances are your wages are down. Those folks aren't likely to be in a better position for a couple of years."

'THERE TENDS TO BE TEARS'

While Locey filled a cart with groceries at the Saco Food Pantry last week, a steady stream of people came through the door. A young mother arrived for the first time, her daughter in tow. A couple selected frozen and canned goods for their family of four. Volunteers say some of their clients are homeless and live in cars.

The number of people who use the Saco pantry has steadily increased in recent years, from about 6,100 in 2006 to more than 9,500 last year, said Bob Nichols, who has helped run the pantry since 1996. The pantry recorded its busiest month ever last November when it fed 914 people.

The nearby Old Orchard Beach Community Food Pantry, open since November, serves about 250 families. Davis, who helps run the organization, said clients need not only food, but toiletries and household items that aren't covered by food stamps. Most people don't come in unless they really need the help, she said.

"We're seeing a lot of people we believe have not used a food pantry before. We're seeing people who very much needed a food pantry but were resisting it," she said.

Families and seniors are showing up more frequently at soup kitchens in Saco, Biddeford and Sanford. The Saco Meals Program gave out 879 meals to 474 people in February from its kitchen at Most Holy Trinity Church. The Always Enough food pantry in Sanford has served up to 80 people a night in recent months, including a growing number of families, said director Sherry Tysver.

The countywide need for food assistance is especially evident at the York County Shelter Programs in Alfred, where the food pantry is open to all residents of the county. Last year, people came from every town in the county except Ogunquit.

In fiscal year 2012, the pantry saw a 38 percent increase over the previous year in the number of people who came for boxes of food.

"Our major increase in that 38 percent was seniors and working poor," said Joan Sylvester, the shelter programs' community coordinator. "Most people who come in for the first time apologize and say there's someone worse off than them. There tends to be tears. It just breaks your heart."

Carol Cail, the treasurer of the Sanford Food Pantry, said she also often sees tears from people who have found themselves at the pantry asking for help.

"They've gotten to this point and they never thought they would," she said.

The historic number of needy families who stream into soup kitchens and food pantries is not limited to York County.

In Portland, Preble Street serves 1,100 meals a day on average, a record for the agency.

At Brunswick-based Midcoast Hunger Prevention, which serves seven surrounding communities, Executive Director Karen Parker said many of the new families seeking help have been driven closer to the financial brink by the tough economic times. Last year the pantry served 1,155 families, 438 of them for the first time. That's up from 1,035 households in 2011.

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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