Executive Director Dwayne Hopkins, center, chats with Doug Norton and Cindi Leonard on May 22 as they bag up whole chickens for clients to pick up the following day at the South Portland Food Cupboard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Every week, Dwayne Hopkins feels like he’s rolling the dice and hoping the South Portland Food Cupboard has enough food.

The number of people who don’t have enough to eat in Maine has been rising for years. But now, new data shows more than half of those who are deemed food insecure also don’t qualify for food stamps and increasingly have to rely on food banks to get by.

“It puts an added stress on us all the way around,” said Hopkins, the pantry’s executive director. “We want to make sure we have good quality and a good quantity for people each week. We don’t want any family to leave with less than what they need.”

So far, the pantry has been pulling it off, but Hopkins knows the challenge to keep up will continue.

Data from Feeding America’s new Map the Meal Gap study show that Maine’s rate of food insecurity grew from 10.5% in 2021 to 14% in 2022 (the latest year for which data is available) resulting in an additional 35,000 people struggling to pay for food.

That means 1 in 8 Mainers – including 1 in 5 children – are now experiencing food insecurity, according to Good Shepherd Food Bank.


It is the highest rate of food insecurity in Maine since before the pandemic.

Adding to the impact is the growing divide between the number of people who need help and the number of people actually getting it from the federal food stamp program.

Half of working Mainers who are food insecure earn too much to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, but not enough to put food on their tables. The maximum annual income level to quality for SNAP in Maine is $37,814 for a two-person household and $67,673 for a five-person household.

“While this new data is startling, it is not a surprise based on what we’ve been hearing from our community partners,” said Heather Paquette, president of Good Shepherd, referring to drastic increases in the cost of food and other necessities in 2022.

She said she expects to see even higher rates of food insecurity for 2023 because pandemic-era SNAP benefits were rolled back early last year, compounding the impacts of inflation.

Good Shepherd Food Bank reports that it has seen double-digit percentage increases in both the number of visits and households served by its network of 600 food pantries in 2022 and 2023. The food bank is on track to distribute nearly 40 million meals – a 19% increase from the previous year – by the time its fiscal year ends in June.


Paquette said Good Shepherd has been expanding distribution for the past decade, but “growth at this rate and continuing meal distribution at this scale is both unsustainable and not the answer to building food security across our communities.”

Mary Jo Keenan bags up donated bread at the South Portland Food Cupboard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


At the end of April, nearly 185,000 people in Maine were receiving SNAP benefits, according to the Office for Family Independence. That marked a 6% increase from the previous April and a jump of more than 11% since April 2022.

During the pandemic, Congress authorized a temporary boost in SNAP benefits to help low-income individuals and families – an average extra $109 per person in Maine in 2022. Hunger prevention advocates say that extra money was critical for people in Maine and allowed some recipients to buy all of the groceries they needed for the first time and rely less on food pantries.

When the emergency allotments ended in March 2023, monthly SNAP benefits in Maine dropped by at least $95, depending on the size of the household. The loss was especially difficult at a time when households were facing higher food, heating and housing costs.

Alice DiGiovanni organizes baked goods at the South Portland Food Cupboard. The number of people using the food pantry has increased dramatically as food insecurity in Maine rises. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

According to the Map the Meal Gap study, the national average cost per meal has increased to $3.99, the highest point in the last two decades, even after adjustments for inflation. The average price per meal in Maine grew to $4.19 in 2022.


But SNAP benefits don’t automatically go up when food costs do – the last substantial increase was in 2021 – and people often rely on food pantries to help cover the gap.

“We hear all the time about the costs going up and benefits going down,” Hopkins said.

The South Portland Food Cupboard is now serving between 140 and 180 families each week, with some coming from as far away as the Berwicks for monthly pickups to take home 20 to 30 bags of groceries. Some weeks, up to a quarter of the families are new to the pantry, Hopkins said.

Hopkins said the pantry is on track to serve 23,000 people this year – a large jump from the 18,000 recipients in 2023.

Dale Ashby, 70, of Portland, says he relies on the food cupboard to supplement the $1,048 in Social Security disability benefits and $230 in food stamps that he receives each month. The groceries he brings home from the pantry make a big difference, he said.

“I go to Hannaford, and everything that used to be $5 or $6 is now $9 or $10,” he said. “If I didn’t have that supplement, then it would have to come out of my $1,048 check. That’s pretty tight as it is.”


Pat Flaherty works on portioning out fiddleheads at the South Portland Food Cupboard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

By the time Lisa Franklin, 52, of Portland, pays her rent and other bills with her $1,595 monthly Social Security disability income, she says there is little left over for groceries. The $23 a month she gets from SNAP doesn’t go far at the grocery store, so she relies on food boxes from Preble Street and Stroudwater Food Pantry to get meat, milk and fresh vegetables.

“I don’t know what I would do without them, to tell you the truth,” said Franklin, a member of Homeless Voices for Justice who has advocated in Augusta for more funding to address food insecurity. “It’s unfortunate that some people have to rely on them, but they are there and it’s important to support them in any way we can.”


The Maine Department of Health and Human Services also announced this week that Maine will be one of 37 states offering the SUN Bucks program this summer to help families access food for their children.

SUN Bucks – also known as the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program – gives families $120 for each eligible school-age child to supplement their grocery budgets until school meals resume in the fall. The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, replaces Pandemic EBT, which began in 2020 to help families in response to the pandemic.

Nearly 100,000 Maine children will be eligible when the program opens in June.

Paula Baronas, right, and other volunteers work on portioning out the produce at the South Portland Food Cupboard. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Most families will receive SUN Bucks benefits without having to take any action because they are already enrolled in SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations; are homeless; are part of migrant families; or are receiving MaineCare with an annual income under 185% of the federal poverty level and will be automatically enrolled.

Experts say it is a critical tool to make sure children are receiving the meals they need during the summer.

“School is almost out for the summer, which means Maine kids will lose access to school breakfast and lunch,” Anna Korsen, policy and program director for Full Plates and Full Potential, said in a statement. “Thankfully, SUN Bucks will be available to fill the gap and bolster families’ grocery budgets.”

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