BATH — The Bath Area Food Bank will hold a food distribution event Saturday open to anyone regardless of where they live or whether they’re a food bank client to combat the growing need due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kimberly Gates, executive director of the Bath Area Food Bank, said she has 12 pallets of non-perishable food to distribute to the increasing number of families using the food bank each week.

“Pre-COVID-19, we were feeding 175 to 200 families per month and in March through July we fed over 500,” she said. “Our numbers are in the low- to mid-400s at this time. But in the past two weeks, we have had a record number of new families we have never seen before.”

In the past two weeks, Gates has seen 21 new families at the food bank, more than doubling what she’d usually see prior to the pandemic.

Gates said the no-restrictions event was inspired, in part, by clients who asked for more non-perishable food during the pandemic as well as a similar event the she organized this summer for Bath Iron Works Local S6 union members. Union members, who had been on strike for two months, were welcome to take boxes of food, regardless of where they lived.

The Bath Area Food Bank usually serves people from Bath, West Bath, Woolwich, Phippsburg, Arrowsic and Georgetown.

Pamala Cox, chair of the Bath Area Backpack Program, said she has seen “a ton of change in demand” due to people losing their jobs.

Cox said the program gave away 900 pounds of food last spring, but that jumped to 1,400 pounds this spring.

“I don’t see this going away in the next six months,” she said. “I see families struggling with unemployment for a long time.”

The backpack program provides food for Bath students to take home from school. Although students can get breakfast and lunch at school, the backpack program provides them with food for the weekend.

Cox said providing food to anyone in need, no questions asked, “is what you need to do in these times.”

“Everyone is concerned about over-giving to people who may not deserve it, but when that happens, the people who might really need that resource miss out,” she said.

Although more Mainers are accessing hunger-prevention resources in recent months, food insecurity and poverty rates have roots in Maine.

According to Jessica Donohue, communications manager for the Good Shepherd Food Bank, statewide hunger rates are projected to grow by as much as 25% in 2020.

“Pre-pandemic, Maine had approximately 180,000 people struggling with food insecurity,” Donohue wrote. “The Good Shepherd believes this number could climb to as high as 215,000 people, should rates of unemployment and poverty sustain at high rates.”

Locally, about 15% of Bath residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.

In April, Maine’s unemployment rate spiked to 10.4% from 3% the month before as COVID-19 cases climbed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state’s unemployment rate has since petered to 6% this month, but is still double what it was last November.

According to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Labor, 2,500 Mainers filed new unemployment claims or reopened their unemployment claim during the week ending Oct. 31. There were also 12,900 continued unemployment claims filed that week for state unemployment, with another 15,100 weekly certifications filed under federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, available to those who do not qualify for state benefits.

Bath, with a population of about 11,000, has seen between 20 and 49 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statewide, there have now been 8,202 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic reached Maine in March, and 158 Mainers have died from complications, as of Wednesday, said the Maine CDC. It took fewer than three weeks for cases to go from 6,000 to over 8,000.

Saturday’s event is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 807 Middle St. in Bath. Visitors must wear a face mask, bring their own bags and remain in their cars when they arrive to control lines and keep everyone at a safe social distance to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

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