On a day defined by overeating, hunger shouldn’t be on the table. But for many Mainers, even on Thanksgiving, it’s never very far out of mind.

It may not seem that way when you look at the number of residents on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which is at its lowest level in years.

But many of the people no longer on food stamps still rely on assistance; they’re just getting it from a different source. An economy that has been slow to rebound for low-income workers and seniors, and cuts to food stamp eligibility, have more Mainers than ever relying on charity food pantries.

Created to help people facing short-term food crises, food pantries are now a regular part of life for many. Their continued growth highlights just how immense the state’s, and the country’s, hunger problem has become, and just how difficult it is for people at the lowest rung of the economic ladder to get by.

Last year, 1 in 7 Mainers reached out for help from one of the food pantries supplied by Good Shepherd Food Bank, not only in times of emergency, but on an average of about once a month.

And despite an improving economy, it’s getting worse, with nearly 70 percent of food pantries telling Good Shepherd they saw an increase in demand in 2014, years after the nominal end of the recession. In total in 2014, Good Shepherd distributed a record amount, the equivalent of 17.5 million meals, and still estimated it could have given away millions more and not filled the gap.

That reveals some uncomfortable realities about the hard and lingering effects of the 2008 economic downturn. People already living paycheck to paycheck lost jobs and depleted their savings, and they have not recovered.

Indeed, Good Shepherd found that 59 percent of the households who utilized food pantries included someone who worked in the last year, and 43 percent had someone who worked in the last four weeks. (Overall, 59 percent were retired – but also may have worked in the last year – and 38 percent disabled.)

So it isn’t a matter of the person becoming dependent on food stamps, or of having to work harder. They simply don’t have enough money to survive. Even those who put off asking for help for as long as possible are finding their way to food pantries.

Some of those until recently received food stamps, but changes to eligibility requirements have helped to reduce Maine’s SNAP enrollment by 22 percent since its high in February 2012.

Certainly, some of those people found jobs, but others obviously helped account for the increased demand at pantries.

That shows just how deep the problem goes. To help in any meaningful way, we have to recognize that, and support programs such as SNAP and school meals that have been proven to work.

Thankfully, Good Shepherd and its partners recognize that hunger isn’t disappearing, but food pantries cannot be asked to take on the crisis alone.

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