Low wages in many areas and state efforts to tighten food stamp eligibility are fueling steady demand at food pantries throughout the state even as the hunger rate, a measure of a household’s inability to afford enough food throughout the year, falls nationwide, according to a new study.

“The food pantry network is a vital lifeline for families and seniors across our state, but food pantries have been asked to do too much,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank, in a written statement. “With the Food Bank and food pantries feeding more than 15 percent of Maine’s households on an ongoing basis, that tells me we have a systemic problem on our hands.”

The study, “Hunger Pains: Widespread food insecurity threatens Maine’s future,” conducted by the Portland-based social service agency Preble Street and Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest hunger relief organization, will be formally released on Thursday.

The study says Maine ranks third among states for the rate of hunger, with nearly 16 percent of its households, more than 200,000 people, experiencing food insecurity, a measure of a household’s inability to afford enough food throughout the year.

Maine’s hunger rate has remained stable while the national rate has dropped, the study shows.

Of the more than 2,000 people surveyed at food pantries in July, 87 percent were children, seniors or people with disabilities; 86 percent said they use pantries at least once a month; and 59 percent said they were using them more that year than the year before.

Also, 73 percent of respondents said they have to go without other necessities, such as medications or paying other bills, to afford food.

The study says 25 percent of those surveyed said they had been dropped from the state’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program in the last year, either because of policy changes that have reduced eligibility, problems with paperwork or scheduling necessary appointments, or increased earnings. SNAP is also known as food stamps.

The state policy changes highlighted in the report include a requirement that healthy adults ages 18 to 49 who do not have children must work at least 20 hours a week, volunteer or participate in a work-training program to remain eligible for benefits after three months.

More than 9,000 people were removed from the program in early 2015, within months of the rule taking effect. Many of those people live in economically depressed areas of the state where training and jobs are hard to find, the study says.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said at the time that the goal of the requirements was to encourage people to find work, and that it was possible that some of those who had left the program were no longer eligible because they had found jobs, she said.

Maine had received federal waivers that effectively suspended the work requirements for six years, but Gov. Paul LePage announced in 2014 that he would no longer seek the waiver.

“We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work,” LePage said in a statement announcing the change. “We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

Fifty-nine of the 100 people surveyed who had lost benefits because of the time limit said they couldn’t find a job or did not have the transportation, the study said.

“There is no evidence that dropping people from SNAP leads them to find jobs, particularly in regions with high unemployment,” the report states.

The study indicates that even those receiving SNAP benefits still rely on pantries. Nearly 60 percent of the people surveyed at pantries received SNAP benefits – of those, 83 percent indicated their monthly benefits last two weeks or less.

Another state policy highlighted in the study was a new asset check for people on food stamps in 2016, making people with more than $5,000 in assets ineligible for help.

The study notes that the state has been tightening eligibility for its safety net program at a time wages remain low and jobs are hard to come by in many areas, especially rural parts of the state such as Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Washington counties.

Only two-thirds of Maine’s workforce of 620,000 people earn a living wage, the report said.

The state also lost 30,000 jobs during the recession but has regained only 5,900 jobs.

The report states that there are hundreds of small groups that provide emergency food to people.

The Good Shepherd Food Bank partners with most of these groups to distribute millions of pounds of food throughout the year. In 2016, Good Shepherd partnered with 399 groups, including many small pantries that rely on volunteers rather than paid staffers.

“When we started Preble Street 41 years ago, Maine had only 40 food pantries total. Now there are at least 400,” Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said in a written statement.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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