Phil Dube, center, works to organize the food before the recipients arrive and place their orders at the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Dube has been volunteering at the food pantry for several years. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The number of Mainers struggling to feed their families and turning to food pantries for help is rising to new heights as coronavirus cases spike and the state faces its worst loss of jobs in any recession in 50 years.

Food pantry directors say they have stockpiled enough food to meet the need for now, but the volunteer efforts are straining and more federal relief will be needed to address poverty and hunger as the pandemic wears on.

“There is a desperate need out there,” said Don Bisson, executive director of the Biddeford Food Pantry, where there has been a 25 percent increase in clients since this time last year.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, food pantries in Maine and across the country have fed a record number of people experiencing food insecurity. Those numbers are now rising again as unemployment claims go up, coronavirus cases increase, and people struggle to pay for heat and other bills while facing economic challenges made worse by the pandemic.

Food pantries across Maine reported a 25 percent increase in clients during the spring, when some food programs saw dramatic spikes in the number of people coming to a food pantry for the first time ever or returning after years of financial stability. Numbers plateaued during summer, but are now rapidly rising again: 61 percent of food pantries reported increases in November, with an average uptick of 12 percent, according to Good Shepherd Food Bank.

“(Much of) this need existed pre-COVID and it’s going to be here after COVID,” said Kristen Miale, executive director of Good Shepherd. “COVID has put a magnifying glass on the economic disparities that exist. This issue of hunger and poverty is not going to go away when the public health crisis is over.”

Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England at 13.6 percent of households. An estimated 173,080 people in the state are struggling with hunger, including 47,460 children, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit with a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks. That means 1 in 8 Mainers and 1 in 5 Maine children are food-insecure.

Danny Travers, left, collects the pantry goods that Dale Ashby has picked out at the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. While their groceries are being brought out to their car, recipients can go inside the tent and pick out other food items to take home with them. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Food insecurity is measured by how many families don’t have consistent access to an adequate supply of nutritious food. Nationally, the food insecurity rate is 11.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Feeding America estimates 50 million people have experienced food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

Last year, food banks nationwide distributed an estimated 4.2 billion meals and 80 percent of food banks report they are serving more people now than they did a year ago. From March to June, 4 in 10 people visiting food banks were there for the first time, according to Feeding America.

Food pantries in Maine typically see high numbers in winter because of heating costs and seasonal unemployment. But unlike a typical year, food bank directors went into this winter season facing uncertainty and anxiety about whether federal assistance would offer any extra help for programs feeding record numbers of people.

Miale said Good Shepherd Food Bank’s partner agencies got some relief in the latest COVID relief package passed by Congress, which extended an increase in monthly food stamp benefits and allocated $1.5 billion for a food box program, $400 million for the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program and $13 million for food for low-income seniors.

Hunger prevention advocates in Maine say enhanced unemployment insurance benefits of $600 per week and extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits paired with federal money for hunger programs were critical to meeting the need for food during the first six months of the pandemic.

The number of people in Maine enrolled in the food supplement program rose steadily in the early months of the pandemic, growing from over 167,000 in February to a peak of nearly 177,000 in May.  In November, 148,466 individuals were enrolled. Data for December have not yet been posted.

Dale Ashby, right, talks with South Portland Food Cupboard volunteer Dwayne Hopkins after getting groceries from the food pantry on Thursday. Ashby has been utilizing the food pantry for years and many of the staff know him well. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But while the supplemental assistance provided last year gave many people food security they did not previously have, those expanded federal unemployment benefits ended and food pantries started to see client numbers rise again.

The USDA last week announced it will spend $1.5 billion to continue its Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which distributed more than 132 million food boxes last year. Contracts will be awarded Jan. 19 and deliveries will begin soon thereafter, but hunger prevention organizations in Maine are not anticipating any Maine farms will be awarded contracts in this round.

There is no sign that the economic pressures are easing.

Last week, nearly 4,000 claims were filed for state unemployment benefits, the highest total for weekly claims since mid-July. An additional 300 claims were filed for federal unemployment benefits. As unemployment numbers rise, food pantries anticipate they’ll see more clients.

Directors of food banks and pantries in southern Maine say they are well-stocked with food for that growing number of clients, but they worry they’re not reaching all of the people who may need food. They also worry about recruiting new volunteers, protecting people from the virus and dealing with the harsh weather as they serve people outdoors.

“We know there are more people who need help than are reaching out,” said Maureen Monsen, director of the York Community Service Association Food Pantry. “We want to help each other out. We’re all in this together.”

‘DOWNWARD SPIRAL’

On one cold morning last week, a half-dozen people lined up to pick up bags of groceries an hour before the South Portland Food Cupboard was scheduled to open.

Inside the food pantry warehouse, more than two dozen volunteers in red aprons sorted deli items donated by a local grocery store, filled shelves with bread and prepared to bag up groceries for the 40 or more families expected to arrive in the next few hours.

Like food pantries across the state, the South Portland Food Cupboard has served more Maine families than ever. Last year, the food pantry distributed 1.2 million pounds of food to 15,650 recipients.

“We have seen a lot more people coming in for the first time. But we’ve also seen a lot more people who have come in the past, but haven’t been in for a few years because they’ve been able to get their feet underneath them. Now life has taken that downward spiral for them again,” said Dwayne Hopkins, the food cupboard’s executive director.

From right, Sylvia Nappi and Dale Ashby pick out some pastries and bread goods to take with them while they wait for their groceries at the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dale Ashby, a 67-year-old Portland resident who is retired and on Social Security Disability, arrived at the food pantry shortly after it opened. Sitting outside of a heated tent where volunteers checked in clients, Ashby filled out his shopping list of preferred foods that would be packed by volunteers. Before the pandemic, Ashby would have sat inside the food pantry, sipping coffee and chatting with others who were there to pick up food.

Since the start of the pandemic, the food pantry has changed its model to minimize contact between clients and volunteers. Clients now back their cars into the driveway and volunteers load an average of 17 bags of groceries per family into trunks. Inside a heated tent, clients can pick out extra food from a table that this week included bags of rice, herbs, cooking oil, spices and pet food.

Ashby misses the community connection, but said he is grateful to be able to visit the food pantry. He said his limited income has not kept up with cost-of-living increases.

“Having a food pantry to supplement and help with food costs is very, very crucial when you live on a tight budget,” he said. “To have a consistent food line is very important.”

As volunteers loaded food into his trunk, Ashby went inside the tent to thank volunteers and pick out a few extra items to bring home.

“I don’t want to take more than I absolutely need,” Ashby told a volunteer as he looked a stack of canned beans.

Volunteers organize the food inside the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“No, please take whatever you need,” the volunteer said. “We have plenty here.”

Hopkins said the food cupboard focuses on welcoming clients and connecting them with other resources when possible.

“Our biggest resources we have here for people is dignity and hope,” Hopkins said. “That’s really what we offer people. It comes in the format of food.”

BUSIEST MONTH IN BRUNSWICK

The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick has never been busier since it was founded 35 years ago.

During November, the busiest month on record, the soup kitchen served 8,311 meals and the food pantry recorded 1,335 visits. December was the second busiest month ever and October was the third. Overall, food pantry visits are up more than 22 percent over 2019 and the number of meals served increased by nearly 59 percent.

Pat Travers, left, and Karen Westerberg look over a recipients’ list of groceries they need at the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Volunteers pack up the groceries on the list inside and then bring them out the the recipients’ car. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“That kind of growth in one calendar year is mind-boggling,” said Hannah Chatalbash, deputy director of the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, which serves people from Brunswick and the surrounding area.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were many new people coming to the food pantry, but that influx slowed as people received more unemployment or SNAP benefits and their first stimulus payment. As those resources ran out, those people started returning to the food pantry and soup kitchen.

“I don’t see that changing unless there’s a significant stimulus that comes up,” Chatalbash said.

In York County, food pantries continue to see more clients and pantries in both Biddeford and Saco have loosened residency requirements to serve anyone who needs food.

In December, the Saco Food Pantry served 658 individuals, including 177 people from outside Saco. The number of clients in December was nearly twice as many as in July, when 283 Saco residents and 55 people from other towns received food.

The Biddeford Food Pantry also now allows anyone to pick up food as often as they need it. Bisson, the director, said he hears from clients that they have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. The pantry is serving an average of 659 families each month, up 25 percent since before the pandemic.

Bruce Garrow, left, and Al Wheeler pack groceries into a recipient’s car at the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

To keep up with the demand, the food pantry is spending about $1,300 a week to buy items its clients need but the food pantry can’t get through Good Shepherd Food Bank, including soap and feminine hygiene products.

The Old Orchard Beach Community Food Pantry is serving around 160 families a month, down from the 200 to 250 families it served each month before the pandemic. Suzanne Norton, the pantry’s treasurer, said she believes that some of the decline has been because of increased SNAP benefits and fear among older clients about contracting the virus.

But the pantry volunteers hear from town officials that there are people in the community who are hungry and don’t want to go to a food pantry because they’re embarrassed.

“We want them to understand that we are here and we have food,” Norton said. “If they need food, they should come. We’re friendly and we want to help.”

CHALLENGE TO RETAIN VOLUNTEERS

When the pandemic first hit Maine and many businesses closed temporarily, food pantries across the state stayed open and scrambled to adapt operations to meet coronavirus safety guidelines. At many pantries, teams of volunteers masked up and bundled up as they switched food distribution to drive-thru models.

From left, Sylvia Nappi and Dale Ashby fill out the forms to receive groceries from the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Both have been coming to the food pantry for years. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Food pantry directors said it has been a challenge to retain volunteers. Some older volunteers or those with underlying conditions have not been able to continue because of health concerns. Many of the volunteers who have remained now have to work outside, a situation that has been especially challenging with winter weather.

At the Harrison Food Bank, about 500 families from three counties come each week for food. The pantry now operates a drive-thru model to limit contact, but that has left volunteers out in the cold for long stretches of time, said Sandy Swett, the founder and director of the food bank.

The food bank received a $25,000 grant from the Agnes Lindsay Trust that it will use to install a structure and heaters to keep volunteers warm as they distribute food to clients in the drive-thru line.

“It’s hard doing business this way when you’re not set up for it,” Swett said.

The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program also has had to adapt to serving record numbers of people with far fewer volunteers. The organization cut down volunteers by 50 to 90 percent depending on the program as it limited how many people could be in the building. Before the pandemic, the organization relied on about 350 volunteers each week.

“We’re seeing all this program growth, but we’ve also lost all these hands, which has made for a unique challenge,” Chatalbash said.

Bruce Garrow, right, and Al Wheeler wheel out a load of groceries to pack into a recipient’s car at the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Miale, from Good Shepherd Food Bank, said she’s continually amazed by the resiliency of the food pantries it partners with across the state, almost all of which stayed open throughout the pandemic while avoiding outbreaks.

“The communities have rallied and really worked together to make sure people get the food they need. We’ve been amazed at our partners and how well they’ve weathered this,” she said. “They are just the real community heroes among us.”

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