Rachel Paquet, a longtime volunteer at York County Shelter Program’s food pantry, prepares boxes for people to pick up.Each box contains food to last about three days. Advocates say more Mainers are getting food from pantries because of rising food, energy and gas costs. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

ALFRED — The food pantry doesn’t open for another 45 minutes, but more than a dozen people are already in line for volunteers to load boxes of food into their cars.

This scene of patient and thankful waiting plays out twice a week, every week. And the number of people who come to get food at York County Shelter Programs continues to rise.

“Sometimes we have a line of people that you wouldn’t believe,” longtime volunteer Rachel Paquet said as she lined a conveyor belt with boxes packed with meat, produce, bread and canned food.

As Mainers pay more in the grocery store, at the pump and to heat their homes, more people are turning to local food pantries. In Alfred, the food pantry is now feeding about 4,500 people each month, nearly double pre-pandemic levels.

Pantry directors across southern Maine say they are seeing the same trend and are hearing from clients that their budgets are stretched thin as they struggle to keep up with higher grocery bills and soaring gas prices.

The Harrison Food Bank is supplying food to 500 families each week, as many as in the early days of the pandemic. The Stroudwater Food Pantry in Portland sees new people nearly every Sunday and anticipates giving out more than 100 tons of food this year, up from 68 tons in 2019. And in Westbrook, the food pantry at Vineyard Church of Greater Portland fed 20 more families a week in March than it did in February.


“These grocery prices are hard for people,” said Sandy Swett, founder of the Harrison Food Bank. “I got two calls (last) week from families that don’t have anything.”

Pantry directors and advocates worry that increases in food, gas and energy costs will put more Mainers at risk of hunger as they make difficult choices about how to stretch their budgets. For people with the lowest incomes, higher gas prices now account for a much larger share of monthly expenses, said Jessica Donahue, director of communications for Good Shepherd Food Bank, which provides food to a network of pantries across the state.

Vehicles line up at York County Shelter Program’s food pantry on April 1. Advocates say they are seeing longer lines because of rising food, gas and energy costs. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“As they rise, it could mean someone has to decide between traveling 30 miles to shop at a fully stocked grocery store for nutritious food versus shopping for what’s available at a convenience store. Or having to make the decision between driving to work or driving to the grocery store or even visiting their local food pantry,” she said.

Nationally, rates of reported hunger have been on the rise since last August, when nearly 8 percent of respondents to the Census Household Pulse Survey said they “sometimes” or “often” did not have enough to eat. By early February, 10 percent of respondents – and 13 percent of families with children – said their households sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

Inflation data released in March showed substantial price increases in gasoline, shelter and food. The gasoline index rose more than 6 percent in February. Last month, food costs climbed 1.4 percent, the most in nearly two years. Energy costs spiked 3.7 percent, the biggest increase since October.

Yvonne Brackett, of Shapleigh, who is widowed and relies on Social Security, is keenly aware of those increases and the impact on her family. She tries to help out her children and grandchildren but finds her fixed income doesn’t go as far as it used to. Most weeks, she needs to go to York County Shelter Programs to pick up boxes of food.


“I can’t make ends meet sometimes. The price of things going up, it’s unreal,” Brackett said. “I don’t know what I would do without this food pantry.”


When the pandemic began, food pantries in Maine and across the country fed a record number of people experiencing food insecurity. In the spring of 2020, Maine food pantries reported a 25 percent increase in clients, with some food programs seeing dramatic spikes in the numbers of people coming for the first time ever or returning after years of financial stability.

Numbers plateaued that summer but rose rapidly during winter as coronavirus cases increased and people struggled to pay for heat and other bills while facing economic challenges made worse by the pandemic. By the start of 2021, food pantries in Maine were serving record numbers of people and pantry directors worried they wouldn’t be able to keep up.

Volunteer Rachel Paquet moves boxes of food at York County Shelter Program’s food pantry on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Help for people experiencing food insecurity, and a break for many food pantries came from both the federal and state government. Federal and state stimulus payments were given directly to individuals, and eligible families received monthly payments of up to $300 per child. Monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, were increased to provide the maximum available amount to recipients.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been approved by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to provide the maximum SNAP benefit, resulting in $299 million in money to support Maine households since April 2020. That translates to an average of $30 million in benefits distributed each month during the pandemic, compared to $17 million monthly if the state had not pursued approval to distribute the maximum benefit, according to a department spokesperson.


An average of 93,000 Maine families receive SNAP benefits each month. The expanded benefits in Maine are approved through this month and DHHS will continue to request the highest level of support for as long as the federal government provides the option, department spokesperson Jackie Farwell said.

The department also partnered with the Maine Department of Education to start a Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program during the 2020-21 school year that provided $67.8 million in food benefits to 70,000 school-aged children. The summer P-EBT program issued an additional $31.7 million in food benefits to more than 91,000 children. The state has applied to continue the program during the 2022-23 school year.

In recent weeks, the Mills administration has taken other steps to offer some relief to people grappling with rising energy prices. Last month, 90,000 eligible customers of Central Maine Power and Versant received one-time bill credits of $90 through a rate relief initiative.

Volunteer Jason Cole loads a box of food into a pickup truck at York County Shelter Program’s food pantry on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills also has proposed using half of the state surplus to give an $850 inflation relief check to help Mainers who earn less than $75,000 as individuals or $150,000 as a household deal with record-high inflation and rising fuel prices.

“Inflation and increased oil and gas prices resulting from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are hitting Maine people hard. This proposal will help Maine people grapple with these increased costs by putting money directly back into their pockets,” Mills said when she announced the proposal on March 18.



Hunger prevention advocates say enhanced unemployment insurance benefits, extra SNAP benefits and other programs were critical to help feed people during the pandemic. Changes at local food pantries also ensured that they had access to nutritious food when they needed it.

Many Maine pantries shifted distribution to contactless drive-up and stayed open even during the worst of the pandemic. They also began allowing people to come from any town for food, no questions asked.

“Our criteria is that if someone is hungry and we have the ability to feed them, we’re going to feed them,” said Doug Horner, director of the Stroudwater Food Pantry, which distributed 105 tons of food last year, a 54 percent increase from 2019.

The food pantry distributed 68 tons of food in 2019, 90 tons in 2020 and 105 tons last year. Horner expects to distribute around 105 tons again this year.

Horner said there has been a noticeable increase in new people signing up to receive food from the pantry in the past couple months. Some people who had stopped using the pantry for a time have returned, he said.

Debora Alonzo, who runs the food pantry at Vineyard Church, said the pantry is serving 60 to 65 families each week, up from about 45 families at the beginning of the year. She started noticing the increase in February and people tell her they need help because of high gas and heating costs.


“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said. The food pantry is stocked with food, but she still worries about whether people in the community are going hungry.

At the Harrison Food Bank, about 25 new families show up each week. The food bank now feeds about 500 families a week, up from around 300 during the summer. Some people drive an hour from rural communities in Oxford County that don’t have a food pantry.

“We’re right back up to where we were at the beginning of COVID,” said Swett, the food bank’s founder. “We have more deliveries than we’ve ever had. We did 181 last week. People can’t afford to come get their groceries.”

The challenge right now, Swett said, isn’t handing out food, but paying for the cost to get it to the food bank. The food bank uses two trucks to make 100-mile round trips to the Greater Portland area each weekday to pick up food donated by dozens of stores. The food bank also provides food to smaller food pantries.

Swett said she spends about $120 a day for each truck. On top of that, the food bank’s electric bill jumped 85 percent this winter.

“It’s killing us,” she said.


Horner, from Stroudwater Food Pantry, said it’s becoming harder to get the amount of food that the pantry could be giving away as more people find themselves hurting because of increased prices.

“You don’t have to hang around a supermarket very long to see that we’re actually seeing shortages in southern Maine,” he said.

Rising prices have not yet interfered with Good Shepherd Food Bank’s ability to distribute food to nearly 600 partner programs across the state. The food bank does not charge pantries for transportation costs, so the cost increases have been absorbed by the organization, Donahue said.

Mike Ouellette, director of the York County Shelter Programs Food Pantry, said rising gas prices have not yet had a big impact on pantry operations. As grocery store prices rise, Ouellette has noticed an increase in donations of food that the grocery stores did not sell, including prepared foods and baked items. The pantry picks that food up from local stores, making it easier to keep up with demand at the pantry.

“They have a lot more product to rotate. It’s worked out for us,” he said.

The pantry also has started distributing pet food to clients in 2020 through a partnership with Pittie Posse Pet Rescue after a survey showed that 84 percent of clients have pets and need help with food. Of those surveyed, 68 percent said they would skip meals in order to feed their pets, said Sharon Secovich, who serves on the shelter programs board of directors.


The pet food pantry helped 324 families feed 945 cats and dogs last year. So far this year, it has given out food to 87 families, including eight new people who signed up on one day in March.

Volunteer Jason Cole gives a treat to a dog while loading boxes of food into people’s vehicles at York County Shelter Program’s food pantry on Friday. Advocates say more Mainers are getting food from pantries because of rising food and gas costs that put more people at risk of hunger. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Last week, Joe Russell of Hollis lined up at the food pantry before it opened for the day. Cuddles, his apricot poodle mix, stuck her head out the window to greet anyone who walked by.

Russell is on Social Security disability and comes to the pantry just about every Tuesday and Friday for food for himself and Cuddles. He’s noticed the lines are getting longer but isn’t surprised given how much everything costs now. He finds high gas prices to be the most challenging to deal with on his limited income and is grateful the pantry helps keep his grocery bill down.

“This place is such a blessing for a whole lot of people,” Russell said. “It keeps you sustained.”

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