AUBURN — As COVID-19 spreads across our state, many of us are looking at the mundane task of grocery shopping in a whole new light.

If you’re like me, you go with a list of what you need, plus the requests from your kids. You cross your fingers that there’s anything left when you get there. You enter the store and find that most of the items on your list, including some of your kids’ favorites, are gone. For other items, there may be only two left. You only need one, but you wonder: Should I take both or leave one for someone else?

Shopping hours were already reduced and now, with Gov. Mills’ Stay Healthy at Home mandate, stores will need to limit how many people can shop at a time. Your anxiety might grow as you consider that there really may not be enough food to feed your family. This leaves us feeling scared, vulnerable and realizing a kind of primal stress that can only come from the fear of not having your most basic needs met.

Make no mistake: The decisions that are being made to protect the health and safety of Maine’s citizens make good sense. And, given the circumstances, the behavior of Mainers stocking up on food is understandable. Yet all of this brings to light a feeling of insecurity that many haven’t felt for years – or maybe even ever.

For the nearly 14 percent of Maine families that are food insecure, this is not a new normal. This is their normal. It may not be empty shelves that prevent them from getting what they need but empty wallets, as the last of the money went to put gas in the car, or to pay for medication or day care.

The food pantry network that works with Good Shepherd Food Bank in Maine is filled with thousands of people – many volunteers – who are working tirelessly to meet the need for these families. Yet, often we do not have enough to keep up with the demand, leaving food pantries with bare shelves or having to limit how many of an item can be given per household. This sense of scarcity is why most food pantries have lines forming outside their doors several hours before they even open, much like what we’ve seen at mainstream grocery stores lately.

Worrying about the quantity of food available is a regular part of the week for the nearly 200,000 Mainers who are food insecure. As are the stress, the panic and the fear. During these uncertain times of COVID-19, those of us who are food secure know that there is an end. We will soon take for granted again the ability to grocery shop when, where and how we want to.

For our neighbors struggling with food insecurity, it will remain their normal long after COVID-19 fades away.

We must allow this experience to give us the empathy needed to inspire change. Will this experience make us realize that living without reliable access to healthy food is not acceptable – not in a country where there is plenty of food? I hope so. Because only when enough of us demand that everyone deserves access to healthy food will we be able to effectuate the change to make it happen.

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