Rune Ravenwolf of the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn brings boxes of food to members of the Crossroads Community Church in Gray on Thursday. Annie Mayer, left, Abi Parker, center, and Phillip Tame, standing behind Mayer, pick up food weekly for the church food pantry. Parker said she has noticed some regulars not coming to the pantry since the coronavirus hit Maine and some new faces she suspects may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA – To cope with a growing need to help hunger relief organizations struggling to keep up with demand during the coronavirus emergency, Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday urged the federal government to coordinate a national strategy to make more food available.

Grace Stocco, 15, left, her sister Annie, 13, center, and Megan Morrison, 13, move containers of peanut butter Monday before stocking the shelves with a shipment of new food items at the Winslow Community Cupboard, 12 Lithgow St. in Winslow. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Mills said his department should “take a stronger leadership role in ensuring that people are getting the healthy and nutritious food that they deserve, and that the gaps in the supply chain are addressed.”

“We know that there is an abundance of healthy foods available for people across our great nation,” Mills said. “We must work together to ensure that this food is getting to those that need it the most.”

Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, the state’s largest provider to food pantries, commended the governor for taking up an issue it considers crucial.

“Food banks like ours are facing unprecedented challenges in sourcing food to meet the needs of Mainers who are struggling with the impacts of COVID-19,” Kristen Miale, the nonprofit’s president, said. “We thank the administration for its time and attention to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Good Shepherd said last week that food donations are down sharply as grocery stores scramble to keep their shelves stocked. It said it is increasingly concerned that it might run out of food unless federal officials do more to organize the supply chain.

Mills said in her letter that “Maine, as with many states across the country, is experiencing disruption that is affecting emergency food providers in particular.”

Gov. Janet Mills Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“Non-perishable foods such as canned goods, flour, beans and frozen items are often the first items off retail store shelves,” she said. “Yet it is these key staples that are traditionally purchased by or donated to food pantries.”

“As a result, food relief organizations are struggling with a critical lack of available food items to provide to their patrons,” Mills said.

At Good Shepherd, to find the food it needs for distribution, it has had to buy food on the open market at a far faster clip than in a typical year, shelling out $1 million in 10 days recently, two-thirds of what it normally spends in an entire year.

Mills said the Agriculture Department could “coordinate a strategic effort to increase the availability of food items to emergency food programs and partners” by leveraging its existing programs to get more food and by prioritizing supplies for emergency food systems.

Mills, who talked with several Maine charities, said when they try “to purchase food for distribution themselves, emergency food providers are finding key items out of stock, and are told that they may be out of stock for up to several weeks.”

The governor spoke on a conference call this month to representatives from Good Shepherd, Wayside Food Programs, Full Plates Full Potential and Catholic Charities, according to her office, and heard firsthand about the difficulties they are facing because of COVID-19-related shutdowns, hoarding and worries.

Mills hailed Maine’s own food producers and networks, but pointed out they aren’t enough.

“Our farm and food producers, and those up and down the supply chain, continue to serve the people of Maine by growing and selling food amidst the enormous challenges that we face today,” Mills told Perdue. “From the farmers’ markets to the retail stores, the local gleaning networks to the community food pantries, Mainers are stepping up to the plate to ensure food is produced and disbursed in numerous ways while ensuring the health and safety of all involved.”

“However,” she said, “a patchwork of state efforts is not enough.”

Amanda Beal, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said in a news release that she hopes the USDA will “act as quickly as possible and leverage their assets and resources to help get the food our emergency food provider community needs in order to feed Maine people during this challenging time.”

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