As Maine continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are reflecting on lessons learned through that challenging and devastating time. While we yearn for normalcy in some ways, we have learned that many of our pandemic-era emergency responses paved a path for a better and new normal, including how our state and nation approach hunger relief.

Raymond Edmunds makes room in the walk-in freezer earlier this month at the Harrison Food Bank, where volunteers were awaiting the delivery by truck of a large amount of frozen fish. The food bank is one of many across Maine that is seeing an increase in the use of its services. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

When the pandemic hit, Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and more than 600 partner organizations across the state responded with resiliency and strength to an unprecedented and unpredictable spike in need while the issue of hunger made front-page news. Increased awareness led to an influx of philanthropic support that appropriately resourced the food bank for the first time in decades. This, combined with increased food through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, fueled a 25 percent increase in food distribution through Maine’s charitable food network.

At the same time, the government intervened with a higher monthly allocation of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, expanded food access for children, advanced Child Tax Credit payments and issued stimulus checks. The state of Maine took advantage of expansions in safety net programs and worked diligently to enroll eligible Mainers to help stabilize lives. The state also increased funding to Meals on Wheels and became the second state in the nation to ensure free school meals for all children, in addition to other legislative efforts.

We now know that this unique public-private partnership led to Maine’s lowest rates of hunger in nearly 20 years. According to the recently released USDA Household Food Security in the United States in 2021 report, which is based on data that was collected at the height of expanded safety net programs, Maine’s food insecurity rates fell below the national average in 2021, to 9.5 percent.

As we applaud the drastic improvements in 2021, we must not lose sight of our neighbors still affected by hunger. An estimated 159,000 Mainers still experienced food insecurity in 2021, with 75,000 of our neighbors falling into the concerning category of very low food security, marked by skipping meals and reducing food intake. While food insecurity rates improved for some populations, Black, Indigenous and other households of color are disproportionately affected, as are individuals 65 and older and people living alone. More action is needed.

Today, the same government support that buoyed an unprecedented reduction in hunger rates is on the verge of being rolled back. Pandemic-related increases to SNAP benefits are set to expire this fall, just as inflation and heating oil prices are taking their toll. As reported by the Sun Journal and published in the Press Herald, food pantries across the state are seeing an increase in the use of their services. Community organizations are trying to predict and brace for what the winter months will bring as a perfect storm of reduced government benefits, increased cost of living and decreased donations slowly brews and spins on the horizon.

Among the many lessons learned during the pandemic, we now know this: the charitable food network alone will not end hunger, and adequate funding and expansion of federal benefits effectively and efficiently fights hunger in our communities. We must not go backward and return to normal, especially in the face of record inflation. Now is the time for Mainers to contact their state and federal officials and candidates for the midterm election and urge them to build and support a comprehensive policy and funding package that makes permanent the government interventions that have proven to reduce hunger. Together, let’s use this new knowledge, experience and momentum to invest in the people of Maine, our greatest asset, and to end hunger for good.

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