State officials hope that by 2030 Mainers will all be able to get enough food like that available in the produce section of the Auburn Hannaford grocery store. Steve Collins/ Sun Journal

Calling hunger an “often invisible epidemic,” a draft plan to end hunger in Maine by 2030 said its goal “is very well within reach.”

The plan, last updated on Jan. 12 and subject to a public hearing next week, said the first step to making sure all Mainers “have easy, consistent access to healthy and culturally appropriate food” is to make sure the state maximizes the use of federal nutrition programs.

In the longer term, though, it calls on the state to “address the economic and cultural conditions” that sometimes trap people in poverty,

Addressing hunger is a crucial need, the report by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry said.

“When most recently measured, one in eight Mainers and one in five Maine children were hungry or at risk for hunger,” it said. “That is a breathtaking level of suffering.”

What it means, the report said, is that “each day thousands of children show up to school too hungry to learn, thousands of workers are too economically insecure to thrive, and thousands of Maine people are contending with entirely preventable ill-health.”

Failing to address the issue will hobble every community in Maine, the report said.

The effort in Maine is part of a worldwide bid to ensure everyone gets enough to eat. The World Food Programme, sponsored by the United Nations, is also eyeing a 2030 deadline, though it is less optimistic about having success.

It said recently that the global goal “remains hugely challenging due to a toxic cocktail of conflict, climate change, disasters and structural poverty and inequality” that COVID-19 has further exacerbated.

The situation in Maine, though, is rosier.

The report originated in a 2019 bill by then-state Rep. Craig Hickman, who told colleagues, “Let’s just do it. Let’s give all of us our best chance to be our best selves. Let’s ensure that every one of us has access to nourishing food.”

For the past two years, Amanda Beal, the department’s commissioner, wrote that hundreds of people inside and outside of the state government have worked together to prepare a report that seeks to achieve Hickman’s goal.

“We know that ending hunger in Maine will truly require that everyone be at the table,” Beal wrote.

The longer-term solution, the report said, is to “address the economic and cultural conditions” that allow hunger to exist.

It said there is no shortage of food. It’s a question of making it possible for everyone to get enough to eat.

John Hennessy, who served as director of the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice, told legislators in 2019 that “if someone is hungry, there is a much deeper problem” that has to be addressed.

“Time and again, when discussing such issues, those involved in the fight against hunger cite the old saying that if we teach people to fish, they’ll fish for a lifetime,” Hennessy said. “But can they afford the rods to fish? Do they have access to the lake to fish?”

The report said the key drivers of food insecurity are economic insecurity, education, health access, homeownership and involvement with the criminal justice system.

It found that “Black, indigenous, and people of color in Maine are experiencing food insecurity at a rate two to nearly four times higher than the state average,” an indication that dealing with problems such as structural racism are a necessary part of addressing hunger.

But other groups are also going hungry at high rates, including immigrants, people with disabilities, single-parent households and low-wage earners, the report said. It said, for example, that one in three home health aides is food insecure.

The report said that food insecurity costs Maine $709 million annually despite government spending of more than $300 million each year for food and another $64 million in private relief for those who are hungry.

“All told, that’s a more than a $1 billion drag on our economy,” the report said, adding that the cost to Maine is 10 times greater than the $105 million “total food budget shortfall reported by food-insecure households” in the state.

“That’s just $91 per month, on average, per household,” it said, “a cost far outweighed by the economic and social benefits, and cost savings of closing that income gap.”

“When we invest in strategies that enable food security and economic opportunity, we invest in Maine’s future,” the report said.

There will be a public hearing on the report before the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation &  Forestry at 11 a.m. Tuesday online.


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