This is the time of year Bill Rae hates. The hungry time, he calls it: the post-holiday doldrums when more poor people come to his Manna Ministries in Bangor seeking food and when fewer better-off people are supporting soup kitchens and food pantries with donations of money and canned goods. Each year Rae and other food pantry operators squeeze by, but each year the squeezing gets a little tighter. Lately, in fact, the increase in demand for their services has approached levels some call scary. The hungry time is all the time in some Maine homes these days.
"The number of people coming into our soup kitchen doubled in two months last fall," Rae says. "Our food pantry was helping 125 to 150 families a week in September and 250 families a week in November."
"In 2004 we had three months when we had more than five hundred visits to our food pantry," explains Terry Howell, director of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick. "In 2005 that increased to five months. In the first ten months of 2006, we had seven months with more than five hundred visits, and November and December are busy times for us. We had twenty-nine new households come to us in October alone."
Soup kitchens and food pantries all over Maine are reporting significant increases at a time when unemployment in the state hovers around 4 percent and state officials and economists are talking about how well the economy is doing. The dichotomy is striking, but it is also easily explained, according to hunger prevention workers. The new people visiting food pantries and soup kitchens aren't homeless or long-term unemployed. "What we're seeing is definitely an increase in the number of working poor families and the elderly on fixed incomes," explains Howell. "Food is the one line item in the household budget they can take from when heat, lights, rent, and gasoline keep going up. And that's driving people to food pantries."
Hunger is a growth industry in Maine. Good Shepherd Food Bank was founded in 1981 in a garage in Lewiston. Today it operates out of a 53,000-square foot warehouse in Auburn, with a satellite warehouse in Brewer serving northern and eastern Maine. It supplies 570 agencies throughout Maine — food pantries, soup kitchens, halfway houses, and other programs.
"The food going through here feeds approximately seventy thousand people a month," says Rick Small, the executive director. "To see what's really happening in the state of Maine, you have to see what's happening here." Small notes that only four years ago less than four hundred agencies were using the food bank's services. He anticipates adding another forty or so this year as new food pantries and soup kitchens open.
When Good Shepherd started in 1981 — and even when Rae founded Manna Ministries in a hole-in-the-wall storefront in Bangor in 1991 — food banks and the pantries they supplied were largely considered urban creations devoted to serving the homeless and unemployed. Today there are hundreds in towns all over Maine. Portland alone has five food pantries and an equal number of meal programs. The state's newest food pantry opened just before Thanksgiving in Corinth, a rural community northwest of Bangor.
Even at that, Small estimates that hunger programs in Maine are reaching only a third of the people who need help. "It's a lot scarier out there than people think," he insists. "The federal government recently claimed that hunger in America has declined, but I guess they didn't look in Maine. Our demand has done nothing but go up."
Good Shepherd and, to a lesser extent, Manna Ministries act as central clearinghouses for large food donations; they are food banks that redistribute supplies to the small local pantries. Small works with major food processors and retailers, such as Hannaford supermarkets, which donate food by the truckload. Good Shepherd also receives food from America's Second Harvest, a national food distribution program. Small has a budget of $2.2 million, twenty-nine full- and part-time employees, and the services of sixty to a hundred volunteers every day to handle the ten million pounds of food that will move through the organization's warehouses this year. That latter number, by the way, is up from 8.9 million pounds last year.
"Eighty percent of the food we distribute is donated, although we still have to pay shipping and other costs," explains Small, who spent some thirty years as pastor at half a dozen churches around Maine before moving to Good Shepherd a year ago. "The rest is purchased." He anticipates needing to buy more food in the future as the food industry makes changes that increase efficiency and reduce the amount of salvage food available for charity. "More than two hundred food banks in the United States already purchase everything they distribute," he notes.
Small and other hunger workers say the clients they serve are for the most part an invisible segment of Maine society: retirees and the working poor who have jobs and homes but are caught in the trap of earning too much to qualify for many government aid programs but not enough to get ahead or just stay even. "There's an awful lot of people living paycheck to paycheck who are only one or two meals away from having nothing," Small asserts.
Small tries to stay optimistic. In fact, he claims that if hunger can be erased anywhere in the United States, it can be done in Maine. "When I was a minister I ran food drives," he recalls. "More than once I sat in the steeple overnight in the middle of winter to raise money for the local food pantry. And my experience is that when people in Maine see need, they respond."
The new people we're seeing in the soup kitchen aren't homeless," adds Bill Rae at Manna. "They're young families and the elderly. It's the same in the food pantry."
Manna focuses on keeping people in their homes and off the streets, Rae explains. To that end, he operates a full-service community aid operation, with rent and fuel assistance programs, substance abuse rehabilitation projects, day-care services, and a long-term residence to help people get back on their feet. "We started seeing people calling for fuel assistance in October, and the year before it didn't start until late November and December," he says. Rae finds great irony in the fact that Manna is located on lower Main Street in the rambling brick building that once housed the Bangor Poor Farm.
Rae says the last time he saw a similar spike in demand was four years ago when the Millinocket mill closed — and that points out a factor that plays an important role in both the reason why food pantries have become so ubiquitous in Maine and an intriguing piece of the Maine experience.
"For a lot of people who grew up in Maine in the fifties and sixties and seventies, they didn't need to go on to college, or even high school," he explains. "They finished eighth grade and went to the mill or back to dad's farm or into the woods to work. Now it's thirty years later and the mill closes or the farm goes broke or they get replaced by a logging machine. So they're fifty or sixty years old and the only thing they've ever known how to do isn't being done anymore. There are no cows to milk. The lumber and pulp mills are closing. They don't have the education or skills they need to retrain for a new, good-paying job. And now a whole new group of people are eating in the soup kitchen and visiting the food pantry."
The Charleston Pentecostal Church moved its food pantry out of a room in the church and into the old Corinth Masonic building in November to meet a growing demand following the closure of several major employers. "It just got to the point where we couldn't meet the need from that tiny room," explains Pastor William Preble. "The first week we opened in the new space we had fifty people come in, and that was without making any announcement about it."
Preble says the loss of almost a thousand jobs at nearby Dexter Shoe hit the area hard. "Even my own wife worked there," he notes. "So many mills and factories have closed around here in the past few years, it's made it really tough for folks." Older residents were especially hard hit, and he estimates that more than half of his food pantry clients are fifty-five and older.
"We've seen layoffs everywhere since the mill in Woodland closed," notes Helen Vose, who has helped operate the Machias Food Pantry for the past twelve years. "A lot of people are feeling nervous about the mill in Baileyville." She recalls that the Machias pantry served just twelve families in the entire first year it operated. "We serve forty or fifty families a week now," she reports, "and that's increasing. People are having difficulty with their rent and lights, and if they skip just one month they never catch up. So they pay the rent and haven't anything left for food."
Another factor is the rising cost of housing, especially in southern Maine. "In Brunswick a two-bedroom apartment costs at least seven hundred dollars plus utilities," notes Howell of Midcoast Hunger Prevention. "The average hourly wage is not rising as quickly as the cost of living."
Howell hears all the commentary about the improved economy, but she notes that there's a difference between having a job and making a living. "There's a real shortage of jobs in this area, and in Maine in general, that pay a livable wage," she explains. "Ten or eleven dollars an hour is not enough to support a household in the Brunswick area. To live here you need to make at least fifteen dollars an hour. So there's a huge gap between what people need and what they're getting — but what they're getting is just enough that they don't qualify for a lot of services and aid."
Howell talks a lot about a new group of people she is seeing in her program — people who are entering poverty. "For those families, money might have been tight before, but they were able to keep all the balls in the air," she explains. Then something happened — divorce, job loss, illness — "and they're finding themselves in a place they've never been before, and it's sort of scary. Suddenly they have to start making horrible choices about what gets paid and what doesn't. Many don't have health insurance, so they get sick, don't see a doctor, and end up in the emergency room and maybe lose their job. It's a vicious cycle, and as it continues they get more and more scared."
It's a fear that's hard to understand for anyone who hasn't been in that situation. "There's a huge lack of awareness by people who are not in poverty about people living in poverty," Howell insists. "I was born in 1941, and most people then were sort of all on the same level. Now I see two separate populations. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and there's this widening gap between them, a gap so wide they can't hear each other. My job is to stand in the middle and shout at the other side: 'They're hungry! Can't you hear them?' "
For a list of local food pantries and soup kitchens in Maine, go to the Maine Department of Agriculture Web site at www.maine.gov/agriculture/co/tefap/county
search.html or contact Good Shepherd Food Bank at 207-782-3554 or Manna Ministries at 207-990-2870.