Mysette Misenga, left, delivers culturally appropriate food to Mauriceth Walez at her home in Westbrook on March 19. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — On a quiet street in Westbrook, Mysette Misenga wedged food boxes and bags of potatoes into her car, checked her list and headed out for her first delivery. By the next day, she would drop boxes of food to a dozen women in the Portland area.

“To receive this food is a gift,” said Mauriceth Walez, a New Mainer who moved to an apartment in Westbrook six months ago and received a delivery from Misenga. “To get fish and African foods is very helpful.”

The deliveries have become a familiar routine for volunteers with In Her Presence who distribute boxes of food that is chosen especially for people who need help, but aren’t familiar or comfortable with the items available in traditional food pantries around the state. It is one piece of a growing effort to address inequities around hunger and food security in Maine that have been revealed and worsened by the pandemic.

“The need was tremendous,” said Claudette Ndayininahaze, the executive director of In Her Presence.

The pandemic laid bare the reality that the existing emergency food structure in Maine was not meeting the needs of people of color who experience food insecurity at higher rates than others, a situation exacerbated by the spread of a virus that also disproportionately impacts Black, indigenous and people of color. People most vulnerable to struggling with hunger didn’t always access existing food programs and when they did, they rarely found food that fit their cultural and dietary restrictions and preferences, such as palm oil, Jasmine rice, dried fish and pork-free products.

Ndayininahaze said she was motivated to help by the obvious need in the community and stories of New Mainers leaving food behind at food pantries or distributions because the items – often canned or boxed processed food – were just not things the families would use.

“The decision we made is we are not going to stop, even if the COVID ends,” Ndayininahaze said.

Nationally, the food insecurity rate is 11.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In Maine, 13.6 percent of households are food-insecure, the highest rate in New England. Food insecurity is measured by how many families don’t have consistent access to an adequate supply of nutritious food.

But the rates are much higher for people of color in Maine, with 28 percent experiencing food insecurity. The number of Black families considered food-insecure is even higher at 40 percent.

In Her Presence, a program organized and led by immigrant women living in Maine, distributes food to immigrant women through a community partnership with Wayside Food Programs. Executive Director Claudette Ndayininahaze checks boxes of food before sending them out to be delivered Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It’s a staggering difference,” said Kristen Miale, who leads Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest food bank with a network of partners across Maine. “We do know that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by hunger because they are disproportionately impacted by poverty. We know that Black households have nearly triple the poverty rate of white Mainers and it’s similar with our tribal communities. It’s not surprising they have much higher rates of hunger.”

Nationally, 21 percent of Black households and 16 percent of Latino households are food-insecure, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit with a network of 200 food banks. That network of food banks serves 1 in 4 Black and 1 in 6 Latino households, compared to 1 in 10 white households.

During the COVID-19 crisis, food insecurity rates among households with children has been sharply elevated, particularly among Black and Hispanic families, according to a July 2020 report from Northwestern. Black households with children experience food insecurity at a rate nearly twice as high as white households with children, while the rate among Hispanic families is 60 percent higher, according to the report.

“When the pandemic came around, the disparity was clear in the eyes of everybody,” said Nsiona Nguizani, president of the Angolan Community of Maine.

In the early days of the pandemic – when Mainers were dealing with stay-at-home orders, closed businesses and unexpected layoffs – leaders from hunger prevention organizations and community groups knew more families would face food insecurity. To meet the growing need, grassroots organizations that previously referred community members to existing food pantries or meal programs stepped in to take on the work of distributing emergency food boxes and bring meals to families in quarantine.

While stepping in to work with hunger relief organizations like Good Shepherd and Wayside Food Programs, the leaders of community organizations and Maine’s tribal communities have advocated for better access to culturally appropriate food that people experiencing hunger couldn’t get from existing food pantries.

Mysette Misenga gathers boxes of food to distribute on March 19 in Westbrook. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“The food pantries that quickly sprung up around the Greater Portland area had been doing a good job in terms of providing (emergency food) baskets,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “What was challenging in those food baskets was the food that was being put in.”

While the pandemic highlighted the disparity and inequity that already existed with food insecurity in Maine, it also made clear that smaller nonprofits led by people of color and tribal communities were not getting the funding support needed, Miale said.

“I think what COVID really highlighted is that while we have an amazing network of partners doing amazing work, we realized that we were not adequately reaching these communities,” she said. “If we were reaching them, we weren’t always providing them the support they needed and the food they needed, particularly our New Mainer communities.”

A GROWING NEED

It didn’t take Nguizani and others from the Angolan Community of Maine to see the growing need in their community. The governor’s stay-at-home order had just started, children were out of school and people were being laid off from jobs. Single parents had trouble getting food for themselves and struggled with the logistics of getting to a food pantry and transporting boxes of food when they couldn’t leave their children alone.

The leaders of the nonprofit organization knew what they had to do: start a program to deliver food right to people’s doors. The organization relied on grant money available because of the pandemic to pay for rental trucks, insurance, gas and stipends for delivery drivers.

“We knew there was a need in the community, but there wasn’t funding out there until the pandemic,” Nguizani said.

Beginning in April, volunteers and staff delivered food boxes to 30 families in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties. That number grew quickly and now totals 170 families, with an average of four people per family, receiving food boxes every two weeks. The boxes from Wayside include African food items requested by the group, including dried salt fish, cassava leaves and potatoes.

“When we put all these things together, people are really happy,” Nguizani said. “They have something they can relate to.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Wayside Food Programs in Portland had to immediately pivot away from its usual direct programs, including weekly community meals, to focus on emergency services that met CDC guidelines. What emerged was a program to pack up to 700 boxes of emergency food per week for community partners to deliver to people’s homes, including members of communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

As the staff at Wayside packed those emergency food boxes – relying heavily on food provided by the USDA – it was clear that some of the food wasn’t going to be used by the people receiving it because of dietary and cultural restrictions and preferences. Muslims, for example, can’t eat pork products.

“That problem wasn’t new,” said Mary Zwolinski, executive director of Wayside.

Mysette Misenga delivers food to Mauriceth Walez at her home in Westbrook on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When groups that were receiving extra financial support because of COVID began reaching out to Wayside about accessing food boxes, the organization decided it would be best to find out what people wanted in their boxes and find sources to secure it, Zwolinski said. That meant finding suppliers for things like cassava leaves and salt fish, which can be expensive and hard to find in Maine grocery stores. Asian community groups have requested Jasmine rice because that can be hard to find at food pantries. 

Wayside is now packing an average of 449 boxes a month for groups including Unified Asian Communities, the Angolan Community of Maine, In Her Presence, Congolese Community of Maine and Portland Public Schools. The Portland-based organization is currently studying how and if to continue distributing the boxes post-pandemic, Zwolinski said.

In Maine’s tribal communities, hunger and access to clean drinking water were issues that existed before COVID, said Lisa Sockabasin, a Passamaquoddy tribal member who serves as director of Wabanaki Public Health and Wabanaki Healing and Recovery.

“It certainly deepened the issue during this pandemic. What we’re hoping for is we’re able to not only simultaneously serve during crisis, but we’re really thinking about the future and how we can address hunger,” she said. “We know there is stigma related to poverty, to being hungry. We want to provide food and have a celebration of our culture, a celebration of each other and a celebration of being able to serve each other through serving food.”

In the past year, the organization has established a Traditional Foods Mobile Pantry to distribute thousands of pounds of traditional food to the five tribal communities. Volunteers have hauled and handed out 2,500 pounds of apples, 9,000 pounds of potatoes and 6,000 pounds of cucumbers and green beans. The produce was divided evenly among the tribal communities.

Each tribal community has its own food pantry, but one of the biggest challenges they faced was capacity to store food. Using grant money allocated during the pandemic, the tribes have built extra storage and added refrigerators and freezers. Wabanaki Health and Wellness also used grant funding to buy a truck to distribute food so volunteers could stop using their personal cars and rented vehicles to deliver food. Donations and grants are also being used to provide clean drinking water.

Mauriceth Walez says she’s grateful for the program as she is not used to eating only American foods and can’t get to an African store to get the food she needs. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Andrea Sockabasin, the nutrition/physical activity manager for Wabanaki Health and Wellness and a Penobscot tribal member, said that while working to get food to tribal members, the organization also focused on incorporating education about nutrition, wellness, gardening and traditional knowledge.

“This was a catalyst in terms of thinking of connecting our culture and building resiliency,” she said. “Even though we’re providing food security, we’re also providing the education, knowledge and culture to sustain that for the future.”

FINANCIAL SUPPORT ARRIVES

As grassroots organizations scrambled to get new programs up and running to deliver food, it was clear that funding would be needed to sustain them. Both the Maine Community Foundation and Good Shepherd focused on getting money to grassroots organizations to build storage capacity or buy food and other supplies.

The Maine Community Foundation used its COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund to address the racial inequities and the urgent need for food assistance, giving grants to such organizations as the Angolan community, tribal communities and programs in rural areas that were delivering meals for the first time.

So far, the foundation has awarded 107 grants for food totaling $749,500. It plans to award another $195,000 for food security in the next week to the tribes and organizations in six counties that have especially high rates of food insecurity.

“The most heartwarming part of this horrible experience is seeing how people have pivoted to address food insecurity. They’ve been creative and tenacious in making sure people are getting food,” said Lelia DeAndrade, vice president of community impact.

At Good Shepherd Food Bank, donations from philanthropic organizations and individuals were pouring in last year because of the pandemic.

“What became evident was smaller nonprofits, particularly those led by communities of color or our tribal communities, were not getting that kind of funding support,” Miale said. “We really saw how in some ways, even with the food bank receiving such an inordinate amount of those philanthropic dollars, that in effect was white privilege happening right in amongst us and right before our eyes.”

The food bank set up a Community Redistribution Fund to provide funding directly to organizations led by and serving communities of color. Three rounds of grants have now been awarded to dozens of organizations, including In Her Presence, Presente Maine, the New England Arab American Organization and Wabanaki Health and Wellness. Many of the groups were not doing food access work before the pandemic and needed financial support to set up programs to reach people most vulnerable to food insecurity.

“What I learned is when we redistribute funding, we are shifting power. We are creating room in what has normally been dominant white spaces for people of color to be at those tables,” Miale said. “We are just scratching the surface of the work we need to do in that space. I keep saying I’m sorry it took a pandemic for the food bank to realize we were falling short.”

Chitam, from the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said it is critical that the programs started by existing grassroots organizations during the pandemic to address food insecurity become permanent because the issue of hunger will not disappear when the COVID crisis is over.

“To become permanent, they need to have a steady flow of financial investment into them so that post-pandemic, the support doesn’t dry up,” Chitam said.

Angelique Bitshilualua gathers boxes of food to deliver on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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