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Maine Food Pantries Prepared For Winter — 'Assuming Things Don't Get Worse'

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Caitlin Troutman
/
Maine Public file
Food at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn in Nov. 2019.

Winter is traditionally a busy time of year for Maine food banks. It’s a time when food insecurity increases because of seasonal employment, eating costs and other factors. And then this year, of course, we add in the pandemic.

Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale says the organization is planning for about a 25% increase in need over last year. She tells Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz that she’s cautiously optimistic food pantries in Maine will be able to meet that need.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: Good Shepherd Food Bank distributes food to some 500 partners all around the state who in turn distribute it in their communities. When you talk to these organizations now, what are they telling you?

Miale: They’re feeling, so far, well prepared. But I think similarly to how we’re feeling, they’re very concerned about what the winter is going to look like. The food bank and our partners both have ample food supplies right now, which is a great place to be in considering where we were last spring, when food supply chains were all jammed up. We definitely did a lot of purchasing this summer. And we’re sitting on over 50% more food in inventory than we normally have. Our partners are telling us that they’re using almost all of their existing storage capacity. But we don’t know what’s to come.

Can you put a finger on specifically the kinds of unknowns that you’re worried about? The things that might hinder your work over the winter?

I think our biggest concern is just the volume of how much the need might go up. We definitely have seen, anecdotally, partners are telling us there’s been about a 25% increase in need. Feeding America just recently put out new data that they put together that said Maine would see a 25% increase. So that’s affirming what we’ve seen. However, we’ve seen that 25% increase — so that’s assuming things don’t get worse this winter. If we don’t see Congress pass another bill similar to the CARES Act funding. A lot of Mainers rely on seasonal employment. We had somewhat of a tourist season this summer, but those businesses are likely going to have to scale back significantly due to weather. And we all know with Maine winters, we all have to pay heating bills.

Is there anything you can do now to prepare for the possibility that demand might go up above what you’re expecting?

We operate on a budget that goes from July to June. So we were able to put together a new budget this summer. We’ve more than doubled our food purchasing budget for this year, we’ve tripled the amount of grants we intend to give out to our partners. We actually had money that we put aside in our budget that we left unallocated so that we would have funding available should a surprise happen. You know, one of our concerns is that normally, the majority of our funding comes in November and December. And so many Mainers already gave to us this year, they gave early. Most donors to the food bank, you know, they’re everyday Mainers. Our average gift is under $100. And so we’re incredibly grateful for that. But we know everyday Mainers are facing a lot of challenges as well.

Are there any concerns about logistics, as we think about the possibility that the virus, which has really spiked in the last few weeks, might take people out of work, might reduce the ability to move stuff around the state?

Fortunately, the food bank and our partners were designated essential workers. So even if we had to move back into a stay-at-home mandate, we would still be able to operate as we did in the early days of the pandemic. You know, the food bank has put in a lot of safety precautions for our staff. We’ve not had an outbreak yet anywhere at the food bank. So we’re thrilled. And similarly with our partners. We’ve done everything we can for the planning and to be ready. This network, this is what we do. We respond when times get tough and when emergencies happen. This is what we’re here for.

As people listen to this, I’m sure some of them are going to wonder what they can do to help you through this winter.

Go to feedingmaine.org and make a donation to the food bank, which we’d greatly appreciate. You can use our food pantry finder, a map where you can put in your ZIP code and you can get information, including contact information, for the closest food access program in your area and you can call them up and see what they need. Many of them also have very active Facebook pages. They usually post on there what they need. Sometimes they need volunteers, sometimes it’s funding. Sometimes they need things other than food that they can’t get from the food bank, things like diapers and personal care items, hand sanitizer. Whether you want to give on the statewide level or you want to keep it local, there’s always a way for you to help.