The recent “Face of Hunger” workshop in Saco was an important step in solving the problem of food insecurity in this area by bringing together some of the entities that are combating this serious problem.

Four panelists and more than 30 attendees took part in the workshop, at which they discussed the problem of hunger in York County and how to address it more efficiently.

According to Sassy Smallman, who helped promote the workshop, Maine has the seventh-highest rate of hunger in the country and the highest in New England. Eighty pantries are serving those in need and 25 of them opened just in the past year, according to panelist Danna Hayes from the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative in Portland.

Smallman’s figures show that 26,000 people are “food insecure” in our county, meaning that they’re not confident about where their next meal will come from. As York County Shelter Programs Director Don Gean said in a recent letter to the editor, those people aren’t strangers ”“ they’re our neighbors, friends and coworkers. Many of them are too proud to ask for help, or can hide it well, but they’re hungry nonetheless. Increased food and gas prices combined with no corresponding cost of living increases at many people’s jobs, have left some people strapped to the point that they are choosing which necessities to forgo.

It’s hard to believe until you see it with your own eyes and hear the stories of those who are struggling, as Mayor Alan Casavant said he found out when he attended a pantry food hand-out this past summer.

And it’s a complicated problem to fix.

Food pantries have been collectively saying for the past few years that the number of those they serve has continued to grow as the economy remains stagnant, so it’s clear that a bigger-picture approach needs to be taken. Government action may be necessary, as some at the workshop suggested, but consolidation and organization will also go a long way in our region.

Review of the state’s food stamp and welfare program in general would be a good idea, to assure that it is adequately meeting the short-term needs of those who are going through a rough patch and the long-term needs of those who cannot support themselves. Pantries exist mainly to fill in the gap for those whose incomes are just a bit too high to allow them to qualify for government benefits, so income guidelines might help pantries set a window for pantry eligibility. This would assure that only those who are most in need are served by these pantries, allowing them to focus their resources.

Streamlining pantry operations is also in order. In Biddeford alone, there are two food pantries, and nearby Saco and Old Orchard Beach each have their own as well ”“ OOB also has the Salvation Army and another pantry effort is now looking to splinter off from the Methodist church. Food is most inexpensively purchased in bulk, however, and one of the best examples of the strength of regionalization is the York County Food Rescue, which collects, warehouses and distributes foodstuffs to the area pantries. The process of collecting donations and purchasing food would be done most efficiently at one regional hub such as this.

Education and employment opportunities are ultimately the way out of this vicious cycle of hunger, allowing people to support themselves and feed their families, as some workshop participants noted, and we hope all of these suggestions are taken into consideration. Ultimately, a plan should be implemented among all the York County pantries and social service agencies to coordinate their response and help address this issue as well as possible so that food insecurity is no longer an issue for these families.

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Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at [email protected].