It was another busy time at the Harrison Food Bank last week, in more ways than one.

On Tuesday, 359 cars were lined up for food by the time workers opened the doors — up from 345 the week before. That didn’t include the 137 clients the food bank delivered food to. Operations Manager Sandy Swett said they are providing food for 500 people or more every week — a 20% to 25% rise over last year.

The next day, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah showed up with a full complement of CDC staff as part of his statewide effort to better understand firsthand an alarming trend emerging in recent months: more and more Mainers seeming balanced on the precipice of food insecurity.

The situation was similarly chaotic outside the Augusta Food Bank on Thursday, with cars lined up around the block ahead of the Thursday distribution, which is open to anyone and is in addition to distributions for qualified local residents during the week.

Executive Director Bob Moore said demand is up 67% from two years ago, with the food bank feeding 75 to 80 people a week just with the Thursday distributions.

Leaders in the state’s effort to help those facing food insecurity say the situations in Harrison and Augusta are being repeated across the state, with more Mainers living paycheck to paycheck, being forced to make decisions on whether to eat or pay bills, or fill the gas tank to get to work. And they point out that heating season isn’t even here yet.


Cars line up on Mt. Vernon Ave. around 7:40 a.m. Thursday as drivers wait for the Augusta Food Bank parking lot to open at 8 a.m. for 8:30 a.m. food distribution. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal


An official at AIO Food and Energy Assistance in Rockland said its membership has increased 200% in the past year. Program Director Sara Spencer said last week that some 200 people a week come through the doors to collect free food, with about five new families added every week. There was no slowdown in demand this summer, as is normally the case.

They didn’t see a slowdown at the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Ellsworth either. In fact, Max Dietshe, who handles communications for the nonprofit organization, said the opposite is true. “We have seen a dramatic rise in demand and in first-time users at our pantry,” he said.

The Loaves & Fishes pantry serves 35 of Hancock County’s 37 towns and saw 2,800 families or 7,000 individuals accept food donations in 2021. By July of this year, the pantry had already reached its 2021 total with the numbers still climbing.

Andrew Edmunds pre-fills boxes with dry goods Thursday at the Harrison Food Bank. Volunteers do as much preparation to organize donation boxes ahead of time to take the pressure off of distribution day. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“We’re still seeing new first-time clients — 200 already — and an increase in the number of walk-ins,” Dietshe said. Some are temporarily housed who have presumably moved from another state or from within Maine, while others, he said, are unhoused or homeless. Transportation is a big barrier to getting food for many of their clients, Dietshe added.

Food pantry staff in Maine ask very few questions of the people who show up at their doors because they are sensitive about providing a dignified experience in an otherwise undignified time in people’s lives.

“What we’re hearing overall is that people are up against the wall,” Dietshe said. “They’re working full time and can’t make ends meet.”


Dee-Ann Potter runs VCF-Bread of Life Food Pantry — a much smaller operation in Mechanic Falls. In the past, most of her clients were elderly and on fixed incomes. Now, she said she’s seeing a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, with a lot of them single parents with kids.

Potter said she’s seeing people come from Oxford, Auburn and Poland telling her they need food. She asks few questions and turns no one away.

“I was once in that situation, so I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable,” she explained.

Bread of Life helps about 40 clients a month through its monthly giveaways at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship on Lewiston Street. Last month was unusual, Potter said, as they had 49 ask for food. A separate program called Fresh Rescue feeds an additional 80 to 125 clients a week, but the need is growing there, too.

For the Fresh Rescue program, Potter picks up meat, bakery items and produce from local grocery stores that would otherwise be thrown out. Four days a week she drives to the local Hannaford, then to Walmart and BJ’s Wholesale in Auburn, to pick up the food for distribution. The food is perfectly fit for consumption, it’s just nearing its sell-by date in most cases.

As the Sun Journal reported last week, two of the biggest food banks in Maine are also seeing increased demand for food and a drop-off in food donations from grocers, part of the trend that worries administrators and managers of food bank operations.


Matt Powell of Good Shepherd Food Bank loads the Augusta Food Bank van Tuesday morning in Auburn. Christopher Wheelock/Sun Journal


All of Maine’s food pantries source a lot of their food through the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. It serves as a clearinghouse for food donations from corporations like Hannaford, Walmart and Shaw’s in addition to U.S. Department of Agriculture programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program.

At a recent meeting of an advisory council within the food bank — made up of about 15 food pantries — the issue of increased demand was a key topic of discussion. Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale said they all reported seeing a significant spike in need. She referred to the food pantries as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine — they will hear and see what’s going on before anyone else.

Reginald Gagne directs cars that had been lined up on Mt. Vernon Avenue into the Augusta Food Bank parking lot just after 8 a.m. Thursday September 1, 2022 in Augusta. Cars line up on Mt. Vernon Avenue for hours before the lot opens at 8 a.m. for the distribution that starts at 8:30 a.m. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We are very concerned about what winter is going to look like,” Miale said in an interview on Monday. “The other piece that you saw that we definitely are seeing as well . . . the decline in donated food. Our numbers are not down as much as some of the food pantries you talked to,” she explained.

For June, July and August of this year, Good Shepherd said it’s volume of donated food is down about 12%, which is significant considering the volume of food the organization takes in.

Over the past two weeks, Miale’s team has been holding meetings with the members of Maine’s congressional delegation. Working together with Feeding America — a national network of food banks — they’re asking for an emergency appropriation for December to support the food bank network. “Because this isn’t just Maine. This is happening all across the country,” Miale stated emphatically.

“What’s coming is what we’re kind of describing as, unfortunately, a perfect storm of events,” Miale said. “We’re seeing the needs start to really, really grow due to the impact of inflation.”


Miale pointed to two other key events that may tip the scales into the unknown for food banks. First, the expansion of benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are due to be curtailed, likely in early 2023. The program got extra funding from Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic through the CARES Act, but Congress has made it clear, Miale said, that it won’t extend the expansions.

Pallets of food are ready for loading Tuesday at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. Christopher Wheelock/Sun Journal

Secondly, expansions of the The Emergency Food Assistance Program are also coming to an end, also likely early in the new year. The federal program helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing them with emergency food assistance at no cost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides American-grown foods and administrative funds to states to operate the program.

Miale said Good Shepherd is seeing the amount of food it gets through that program down 54%. In simple math, the 9 million pounds of food Good Shepherd received through TEFAP in 2021 will be reduced to 3 million pounds this year.

To make up the difference, Miale said they’re having to purchase food at a much higher cost to fill the void. That, she warns, is not sustainable.

One final observation that has the president of the state’s largest food network worried. She said people are already concerned about winter and there is a heightened sense of fear. Food banks are already getting requests for fuel assistance. Miale said that normally doesn’t happen until November — they’ve never heard the requests in the summer before.


Sara Spencer and her team at AIO Food & Energy Assistance in Rockland are getting support from the community to help them get through the current situation. They get eggs donated from local farms, fresh baked bread and produce from Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, meals prepared and donated by the Mid-Coast School of Technology culinary program and more.


Potter is hoping to expand from one day a month giveaway at the church in Mechanic Falls to two or even three days a month and said she’s always trying to source extra foods like rice. She’s trying to encourage clients to stretch what they do get from the pantry for now, so everyone can get something.

Potter believes in education and is trying to teach her younger clients how to blanch produce and freeze it for later use, another way of stretching what is available.

For Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Ellsworth, October will mark a major step forward as they expand into a new facility and adopt the “client choice” model espoused by Good Shepherd Food Bank. Essentially, it’s creating a grocery store-style facility where clients can come in, choose what they want and go home with their dignity intact. It’s the first capital campaign the food pantry has ever held, but fundraising may become a permanent part of its routine.

Dietshe, the panty’s communications director, said support in the community has been incredible, despite the dichotomy of the haves and have-nots in the coastal community. “We are confident we will find a way to feed everyone,” he said.

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