As many Mainers gather around loaded dinner tables for the most food-centric holiday of the year, others are unsure when their next meal may be.
Nationally, the rate of food insecurity is 11.1 percent, the lowest it has been since the recession, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In Maine, however, 13.6 percent of households are food insecure, the highest rate in the New England region.
“Prior to the recession, our rate of hunger was, you know, below 8 percent.”
Kristen Miale is the president of the largest hunger-relief organization in Maine, the Good Shepherd Food Bank. Good Shepherd distributes food to all 16 counties in the state. Miale points to findings from the Maine Center for Economic Policy to explain why the state’s food insecurity rate remains elevated, in contrast with the national rate. The report shows that while the state unemployment rate has declined, many middle-class jobs have disappeared or been replaced with low-wage jobs.
“We believe, really, the issue is the changing of our employment situation,” says Miale. “So the unemployment rate, while that has come back to pre-recession levels, those middle class jobs didn't come back. Instead lower wage jobs have come into the state.”
This means that people may be working, but they still have difficulty getting enough food for their households.
And food insecurity may look different than you’d think.
“There really is sort of a range of food security that does encompass both the dietary quality and also the dietary quantity,” says Alisha Coleman-Jensen, a social science analyst at the Economic Research Service of USDA. She says that food insecurity is about a lot more than just hunger on a given day.
“So sometimes food insecure households are relying on low cost foods. They're not able to eat a variety of foods or eat balanced meals, things like that,” Colemand-Jensen says. “The other component of adequacy is just having enough to eat. So sometimes households report cutting or skipping meals and more severe situations, going the whole day without eating.”
The Good Shepherd Food Bank is working to address the problem of food insecurity in the state through its programs, which include food distribution to more than 400 partner agencies.
“So Good Shepherd is not a pantry. Good Shepherd is the warehouse that serves the pantries.” Doug Boyce, speaking from the Auburn food distribution center, has been volunteering with the food bank for six years.
Boyce first learned about Good Shepherd when he worked with the Hannaford supermarket chain, one of the food bank’s primary donors. He now volunteers full time, mostly at the food bank. And that volunteer support is needed, says Boyce.
“There are a lot of things going on,” he says. “They have a whole fleet of trucks, drivers, a bunch of paid employees downstairs, warehouse staff to pick orders and manage the whole product flow inventory systems and so forth.”
Last year, the food bank distributed millions of pounds of food statewide and in 2019 opened a second distribution center in Hamden to keep up with demand.
“Through our network of partners we distributed 25 million meals across the entire state of Maine,” says Good Shepherd President Kristen Miale. “We estimate we'd need to be doing probably closer to 34 million meals to be fully meeting the need.”
Miale says that another important component of Good Shepherd’s work, is addressing the root causes of hunger in the state.
“We don't want to keep growing and we don't want to be here,” she says. “We have enough food in this state right now to make sure everybody can eat. And so it's a matter of putting in the right policies and investments in our people, in our economy, to make sure that everybody has access to healthy food.”
Miale says the Good Shepherd team works to educate Mainers about food insecurity and also to advocate for government policies that address the issue. Policies that Miale says have been effective include expansion of the earned income tax credit and increasing awareness and access to child nutrition programs.
Additionally, “We were definitely pleased to see the minimum wage change go through,” she says. “I don't think you can dismiss the fact that a year after we raised the minimum wage, Maine’s rate of hunger went down for the first time in 10 years. I think those two things are absolutely correlated.”
Still, Miale says, there’s much work left to do.
“We believe ending hunger, really, it's the first step to breaking the cycle of poverty,” says Miale. “And so we will always remain committed to that work.”
Originally published 6:00 a.m. Nov. 28, 2019