SACO — Fighting hunger is going to take a collaboration of different entities working together.

That was one of the messages at “The Face of Hunger” workshop Saturday morning, held at First Parish Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

Four panelists ”“ Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, Will Rankin of the Saco General Assistance office, Kristine Jenkins of Partners For A Hunger Free York County and Danna Hayes from Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative ”“ shared their experiences with those in need and then fielded questions from the more than 30 people in attendance. Participants were invited to continue discussions over lunch after the workshop and write down their thoughts, and that information would later be distributed on an email list of participants.

Casavant said that last summer, he had “an awakening.” He said he was at a food giveaway event sponsored by a local food pantry, and he was “stunned” to see so many people there, and especially stunned to see so many elderly and so many of his former students from Biddeford High School, where he taught for many years. He said some of his students appeared uncomfortable seeing him there, and he felt discomfort seeing his former students, who he remembered as happy and secure, as now insecure and uncomfortable.

Casavant said there are many people in Saco and Biddeford who are food insecure. He said, as mayor, he feels his role is to get the local government working more closely with social service agencies and faith organizations so that everyone is “all on the same page” and combining resources.

Jenkins said that her group is a collaboration of partners, which has worked on projects such as teaching children how to grow and prepare healthy food and getting funding to expand a farm food program for seniors.

She said among the goals of her organization are to share information, get people working together and identify specific things people can do.

“A lot of times, people want to help but they don’t know what to do,” she said.

Rankin said many people today “are only a couple of paychecks away from a disaster,” and with the rising cost of gas and food, “the working man’s pay does not go nearly as far as it used to.”

Many people are making difficult choices about whether to pay for food, medicine or heat, he said, and there’s a stigma about the issue of hunger ”“ it’s often hard for people to say they’re hungry and ask for help.

In order to get people involved, there has to be a face to the issue. If people know someone who is hungry, it strikes home and becomes real. However, he said, “no one wants to be the face of hunger.”

Hayes said that at one time diseases like cholera, malaria and yellow fever were commonplace, and through government intervention, those are a thing of the past in the United States. She said to combat the issue of hunger, there needs to be government interaction.

Local columnist Maureen McDermott Gill said she wanted to know how to “reach across the aisle” to get others to understand the issue of hunger.

“I’m sitting here thinking this (workshop) is wonderful, but where is this going?” she said. “We’re preaching to the choir.”

Jenkins said that there are factors ”“ such as health, heating and employment ”“ that play a role in hunger. Hunger is an “interlocking problem” and it needs an “interlocking solution.” To solve it, she said, you have to get all the pieces together, including farmers, tapping into under-utilized federal programs and the prospective of local government.

Hayes said hunger is tangible, it’s something to which everyone can relate, and it’s important for everyone to see what the issue of hunger looks like.

She said that her organization invites people such as political candidates to her organization’s soup kitchen, and for some, it’s the first time they’ve been visually confronted with the issue of hunger.

Pastor Michael Gray of the Old Orchard Beach United Methodist Church, who attended the workshop, said when combating hunger, there needs to be long-term solutions as well as short-term solutions. Middle class values are different from those who suffer generational poverty, and combating generational hunger begins with educating children at the preschool level to teach them the necessary social skills, he said.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 325 or [email protected].

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