A new loading dock was built this spring at the Harrison Food Bank. Food bank managers around Maine, including in Harrison, have noticed a dramatic uptick in requests for food assistance in their service areas. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat file

The demand for food from Maine food banks is rising right along with inflation, and that has food bank managers worried about the immediate future.

Summer in Maine historically sees a downturn in demand at food banks due to an abundance of produce from home gardens to local and regional farms, Sandra Swett, operations manager at the Harrison Food Bank said. But this year demand has remained high all summer.

Fall is just around the corner and students will start going back to school in the next two weeks and that is traditionally when food banks see an uptick in demand. Swett said they are serving 500 or more families a week.

“I’m very, very concerned,” she said. “I saw more desperation than a year ago and as summer turns to fall, we’re trying to imagine what it’s going to be like. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Harrison services about 93 towns, including those in Oxford, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties.

Swett said she is shocked at how far away people are driving for food giveaways, which come with no strings attached. People are carpooling to get to Harrison to save on gas and picking up for up to five families at a time. Some are telling her they have to ration food for their kids.

Advertisement

“It’s inflation,” Swett said. “They can’t make ends meet. Something has got to give.”

Augusta Food Bank Director Bob Moore, center, speaks with volunteers in July 2021. This year, Moore and other food bank directors are noticing a dramatic uptick in the need for food assistance in their service areas. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file photo

The situation at the Augusta Food Bank is similar, although on a slightly smaller scale. Executive Director Bob Moore said demand is up 67% for food they take in and export over just two years ago, with the rise in demand more prevalent this year.

Residents in need from the Augusta and Manchester area can pick up free distributions Monday through Wednesdays with an appointment. Those giveaways serve about 350 families normally. On Thursdays, food distributions are open to anyone without an appointment, and Moore said people are arriving as early as 2:45 a.m. just to get in line, but are regularly there at 4 to 4:30 a.m. — ahead of the 8 a.m. opening.

Boxes of cereal and other food are spread out at the Augusta Food Bank. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo

Demand on Thursdays is up about 30% from a year ago, according to Moore, with 80 to 85 giveaways, representing about 230 or more families per week.

“We’re seeing professionals,” Moore said, “nurses, school teachers, people we haven’t seen before.” And they’re coming from Lewiston, Gray and Litchfield in addition to the greater Augusta area.

Moore said distribution of their Kids Packs, which contain shelf-stable foods for six meals and six snacks, was 80 per week last summer but is 150 to 175 per week this year.

Pressure is building on the supply side of the equation as well. Swett said they make 89 stops a week to pick up donated food but the grocery and warehouse clubs are donating 40% to 50% less than a year ago. Whether that’s due to supply chain issues, food shortages or just lack of inventory Swett isn’t sure. So she’s partnered with Maine fisheries, local farmers and companies like Tyson Foods to extend their pantry offerings. Swett said without their help, the food bank would be in trouble.

Both Swett and Moore said the need for food has broadened beyond the usual demographics and they are seeing more and more people who have never been to a food pantry before. Swett said she’s hearing from more and more caseworkers calling on behalf of clients searching for food help. She said she even got a call from a Portland physician trying to find food for a patient in need in Bethel. Despite being an hour’s drive from the food bank, they delivered.

If your food bank is seeing a rise in demand, we’d like to be in touch with you for an update to this story. If you know someone using a food bank for the first time, we’d like to hear from you as well. Confidentiality requests will be honored. Contact business writer Christopher Wheelock at [email protected] or call 207-689-2817.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.