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Study: State Policies Have Increased Food Insecurity in Maine

Mike Groll
Associated Press
Volunteers fill bags with food for a customer at the Interfaith Food Pantry at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Feb. 2016, in Albany, New York

Nationally, about 14 percent of the population is considered to be “food insecure,” and the numbers are on the decline. But not so in Maine, where nearly 16 percent of households lack reliable access to food.

A new study commissioned by the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative and Good Shepherd Food Bank finds that recent policy changes have deepened hunger in the state.

Elton Thornhill say he’s always hungry.

“Yesterday, I only had pasta and sauce, That was it,” he says. “One big meal, just some pasta and sauce. That was it.”

A retired Navy vet who lives in Rockland, Thornhill says he’s been eating one meal a day for the past two years. He relies on food pantries to get by ever since his SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits ended.

“Well, because they considered me an able body. So they only put me on for the three-month time-limit period, unless I was able to volunteer or have part-time work,” he says.

Thornhill says he recently completed machinist and welding certification, but no one wants to hire him part time, which is all he can manage because of a bad back as well as PTSD and bipolar disorder. And he’s had difficulty finding volunteer work, which is a requirement to stay on SNAP benefits.

“Volunteering, it’s very spontaneous. It’s one of those things, they don’t need volunteers every day, like say the soup kitchen, the Salvation Army or even Goodwill. They don’t always need volunteers, so it’s not like I have a regular 20-hour volunteer thing.”

Thornhill is one of those people across Maine who, according to Preble Street and the Good Shepherd Food Bank, are lining up in ever-increasing numbers at food pantries' doors. The two organizations collaborated with the University of Southern Maine to survey food pantry clients.

Preble Street’s Jan Bindas-Tenney says of the 2,000 people interviewed, “Eighty-seven percent of households that we talked to at food pantries contain a child, a senior, or someone with a disability.”

About the same number, she says, rely on food pantries at least once a month, and nearly 60 percent used food pantries more this year than last.

The director of the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Kristen Miale, says the study’s findings show that recent policy changes to SNAP benefits, such as the three-month time limit as well as an asset test, may have been intended to help people thrive, but that hasn’t been the effect.

“The result is that losing access to SNAP does not then translate to people getting jobs. Instead, these people are at the food pantry lines, which actually prevent them from getting jobs,” she says.

As the Maine Legislature considers proposals that seek to place further restrictions on safety net programs, Miale hopes lawmakers will actually strengthen them, and roll back the recent changes.

“And instead look at programs such as job training programs that people want to be able to get into, but there are long wait lists — they can’t always get to them,” she says.

A request for comment from Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services was not returned — state offices closed early on Thursday.