Almost exactly one year ago, with the hope and inspiration of 2020 on the horizon, we asked Mainers to come together to end hunger in this decade.

Volunteer Joe Rines packs bags with food at the Biddeford Food Pantry last April 23. Working with Good Shepherd, the food bank is one of the hundreds of partners that are on track to distribute 31 million meals in 2021 – yet that is only 75 percent of the number of meals that are expected to be needed. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At the time, there was good reason to have optimism. Although nearly 175,000 Mainers were facing hunger – 12 percent of our population – it was the lowest rate of hunger Maine had seen since the Great Recession. In partnership with food pantries, meal sites, schools and health care centers across the state, we had expanded our food distribution by 160 percent over the last decade – reaching upward of 25 million meals in 2019. Together with community partners, elected officials and dedicated supporters we were making meaningful progress in ending hunger and improving the lives of thousands of Mainers.

Looking over the horizon into 2020, we never could have imagined the devastating impacts of COVID-19. Hunger is now on the rise by as much as 25 percent. Now, 215,000 Mainers are facing hunger, including 60,000 children. Through intrepid work with our more than 500 statewide partners, we are on track to distribute 31 million meals this year – yet this is only 75 percent of the 40 million meals we project are needed.

Facing unprecedented logistical challenges, a decrease in volunteers and an increase in demand for food, our partner food pantries, meal sites, schools and health care centers have risen to the occasion. From creating a welcoming experience for the thousands of neighbors visiting a food pantry for the first time and finding new ways to distribute more food safely, to comforting a neighbor who was brought to tears by the fresh fruits and vegetables she received – the staff and volunteers of community hunger relief partners are the true heroes.

But let’s not let their courage and resilience mask the undeniable vulnerabilities of Maine’s charitable food network that have been spotlighted throughout the pandemic. Our network of nonprofit partners was meant to be a short-term solution to ending hunger.  We were not designed to be, and nor should we be, the long-term solution.

Yes, we need to provide more food – and we will continue to do that – but food alone will not solve hunger. In partnership with our elected leaders and philanthropic partners, we must invest in strategies that provide not only short-term relief, but also long-term solutions to the number of Mainers experiencing hunger. And we must make sure that food access is empowering and dignified for everyone.

Ending hunger and its devastating effects in Maine is within our reach when we all come together and contribute to the solution.

While many things changed in 2020, one thing did not: Just like we did one year ago, we should ask ourselves what will be done in this decade to ensure the next generation of Maine children does not grow up hungry. Pandemic or not, the clock is still ticking and the health, well-being and prosperity of Mainers hang in the balance.