The growth of the Good Shepherd Food Bank tells a lot about the kind of people who live in Maine. The nonprofit organization delivered 23 million pounds of groceries last year, supplying a network of food pantries and soup kitchens all over the state.

While the public faces of the effort are the kind men and women in church basements and community buildings who give people who have nothing something to eat, behind the scenes Good Shepherd has grown a giant infrastructure, with collection, storage and distribution systems that rival a large grocery store chain’s.

And that’s what makes this feel-good story very bad news: This is not a success, it is a failure – not the organization’s, but Maine’s.

The growth of Good Shepherd and other charitable organizations shows how far government efforts are falling short, and the transformation of emergency interventions into permanent institutions is proof that Maine’s weak response to hunger is making the problem worse.

How big is the problem?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are approximately 206,000 Mainers who experience food insecurity, the term for those who don’t have enough money to reliably get their hands on an adequate supply of safe, nutritious food.

YOUNG AND OLD

That number includes 24 percent of Maine’s children and 23 percent of its seniors. Maine ranks 12th in the nation for this measure of hunger, and first – or worst – in New England.

But while the problem grows, the state’s response has been to pull back, using government policy to reduce the number of people who receive aid through entirely federally funded programs, leaving money in Washington that could be helping people here and putting more pressure on individuals who support charities and whose consciences won’t permit them to turn their backs.

“We’re no longer for emergencies. We’re a regular supplier of people’s food,” said Kristen Miale, Good Shepherd’s president, in a recent interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram. “Food banking isn’t the solution to hunger.”

She is correct. Food banking is a symptom of the hunger problem, not an antidote to it. Charitable organizations cannot have the reach of the state and federal governments. Charities rely on volunteer labor and a patchwork of organizations, each with its own rules and goals. Only the government is big enough to consistently penetrate every corner of the state and get food to the people who need it.

And even if there were no gaps for people to fall through in the web of these well-intentioned organizations, feeding the hungry should not be considered a matter of choice. Just like clean water, public safety and education, making sure that everyone has enough to eat is an obligation of a just society, not something that’s done only when individuals feel generous.

So if food banks aren’t the answer, what is?

That’s an easy one to answer. Starting in the mid-1960s, the federal government made war on poverty, and by the 1970s hunger was nearly eliminated, so we know what works.

The best solution is a strong economy that produces jobs at living wages. Financial security and food security are closely linked.

But when some people still don’t have enough, supplemental food assistance programs like “food stamps” or school breakfast and lunch programs fill in the gaps.

That creates a policy agenda for the state and federal governments.

RAISE WAGES

Raising the minimum wage and increasing the earned income tax credit would put more money in the hands of people who would use it to feed their families, no longer needing government help or a charity to survive.

Maine should stop turning its back on federal programs and apply for the regional waivers that are available that would put more food assistance into the state’s poorest communities. Instead, Maine is creating bureaucratic obstacles, such as asset tests, proof of job search and photo IDs on electronic benefit cards, that slow down access to food aid for people who need it.

And state officials should stop measuring the success of their programs by the number of people who no longer receive services. It is unconscionable for politicians to crow about teaching people to be independent by dropping their food assistance at the same time that food pantries multiply and their distribution system starts looking like a grocery chain’s.

If hunger isn’t going away, there is nothing to celebrate when the food stamp rolls decline. It’s just passing the buck.

But even if Maine took advantage of every federal program, it would still not be enough, because those programs are inadequate. A food-stamp recipient is expected to eat on less than $3 a day, not even enough for someone to buy the USDA’s low-cost “Thrifty Food Plan” grocery list in a Maine supermarket. The benefit should be built to fit to the need.

We should applaud Maine’s charities for preventing a humanitarian catastrophe, but we should not be happy when these organizations become permanent fixtures.

When groups like Good Shepherd grow, it’s a sign that the rest of us are not doing enough.


Comments are not available on this story.