With rising food and fuel prices, feeding the hungry in Aroostook County is getting harder
On a recent morning, a few volunteers are loading donated goods onto a truck waiting at the Catholic Charities Food Bank in Monticello.
The truck will deliver the donations to thrift stores in Caribou and Presque Isle, and on the trip back, it'll bring peppers, apples and tomatoes.
"The apples came from a friend of ours who's a farmer," said Dixie Shaw, the director of hunger and relief services for Catholic Charities Maine. "The peppers and tomatoes came off of trucks."
Trucks that have unwanted produce know to call Shaw, who's been orchestrating the criss-crossing of food and donations across northern Maine for more than 30 years.
She operates four thrift stores, one in Monticello, another in Caribou and two in Presque Isle. All of the store profits help fund the food bank, which services 28 food pantries in northern Maine.
But funding and supplying the food bank over the last year, Shaw said, hasn't been easy. And it's especially tough in Aroostook County, where one-quarter of the population is 65 and older.
"I've never seen it this challenging," Shaw said. "It's because of the cost of everything and the availability. It's not just the cost. We can buy some meat if we can get it, but we can't even get it. Not in the quantities we need."
Shaw says some of the food that she buys has gone from $2 or $3 a case to $20. And it's not just the food.
"My trucks are diesel for the most part. My fork-lifts are propane. I've got that humungous freezer out there. I've got a bigger freezer in Caribou. They're all on three-phase electricity," Shaw said. "Everything in my budget has blown its amount because everything went way higher than I ever could anticipate."
Aroostook County is the largest county in Maine — with more square miles than Connecticut and Rhode Island put together — and that makes current gas prices especially tough to swallow. Shaw said things are particularly difficult now, because there was more federal assistance and overall a better awareness of food insecurity during the pandemic.
The Aroostook Agency on Aging used to provide about 4,500 meals to senior in the County each month before the pandemic, In 2020, that number more than doubled to more than 10,000 monthly meals.
Those numbers aren't going down, said Chris Beaulieu, the agency's director of home care and nutrition services.
"Over two-thirds of those people who came on [during the pandemic] were eligible before," he said.
At the same time, the agency's food costs are up 17% over the last year, and that doesn't include the electricity needed to keep the meals frozen or the fuel needed to deliver them.
"Part of our concern is that the more meals we need to put out and the higher the costs that go up, the fewer meals we're going to be able to put out because we're not going to have the money," Beaulieu said.
Adrian Hartell is the director of operations for BAFS Inc., a Bangor-based food manufacturer that provides frozen meals to the Aroostook Agency on Aging and other groups in Maine for their Meals on Wheels programs.
"Without exaggerating, it's unprecedented what we've been seeing over the past couple of years," he said.
Hartell said prices are up for things that consumers might expect, such as chicken and ground beef or vegetable oil and frozen potatoes. But it's other supplies too, like the cardboard used to hold and deliver Meals on Wheels containers.
"We've seen the cardboard go up three or four times in the span of this past year, and sometimes those increases are at 20% a shot," Hartell said.
There are some things Hartell said he can do to keep frozen meal prices down, such as buying uncooked chicken breasts and pork from his vendors and having his own staff cook and slice the meat. Pre-cooked products are usually more expensive, he said.
Sometimes the meals can be redesigned by substituting a high-cost product with something that's more economical, Hartell added. But Meals on Wheels has specific nutritional guidelines, and Hartell says skimping back on the portion size isn't an option.
If he can find a good deal, it can take weeks or even a month longer than usual for the products to arrive, Hartell said.
"The biggest consistent piece with all of this has been the inconsistency of it," he said.
The Aroostook Agency on Aging still has some federal rescue funds. But if food costs continue to rise, it may have to start a waiting list or tighten eligibility requirements beyond the current rules to stay within budget, Beaulieu said.
For Shaw, combating high food costs means simply doing more to raise more funds, selling more through the thrift stores and collecting more old clothing to sell to a company that ships the boxes overseas to developing nations.
But that takes volunteers.
Many of Shaw's volunteers are on fixed incomes themselves, wrestling with the same high fuel and food prices like everyone else. Sue Tapley and her husband Brent are both retired and have been volunteering for a few years.
"They live just down the way and they can't stand to be bored, thank you, Jesus," Shaw said.
They usually help out a few days a week, more during the summer.
"If we lived farther away I probably wouldn't come as much as I did because I couldn't afford it," said Tapley, as she and her husband sorted through donated clothes to bind and bail.
Each bail weighs 1,050 pounds, and the Monticello warehouse sends 42,000-to-44,000 pounds of old clothes overseas every six-to-eight weeks, Shaw said. The money they earn pays for more items to stock the food bank.
"Nobody knows just how big of a job it is here. It amazes people when they come in and see our stacks of clothes and our stacks of shoes," Tapley said. "She needs more volunteers."
In addition to the thrift stores, Shaw also hosts fundraisers, including an annual telethon that raised $72,000 this year. In the meantime she keeps her eyes peeled for the next donation, and the next truck full of produce that she can offer to families in northern Maine.
"There's all kinds of challenges, but I have to do what I have to do to make it," Shaw said. "We don't shut the doors; it's not an option."