Area food pantries face crisis following federal cuts

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

A crisis is unfolding in food pantries throughout Cumberland County as news sinks in that all of the federal funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program has been cut for 2011.

Cumberland and five other counties in Maine — Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo, Hancock and York  — did not qualify for federal aid because minimum poverty and unemployment rates were raised significantly from last year in the formula used by the EFSP National Board. The overall award to Maine dropped from $814,000 to $347,000, with Cumberland County losing $143,000.

In all, 29 food-providing agencies in Cumberland County, including food pantries, meal programs and kitchens, lost their federal funding, effective Aug. 1. The crisis is particularly grave for smaller, rural food pantries like the Bridgton Food Pantry at the Methodist Church, which relies on EFSP funds, administered by the United Way, for 90% of its budget.

“I don’t get funds from the private people,” said Debbie Davenport, the Bridgton Food Pantry’s director. If people and businesses in town don’t step up and help her pantry out, she said, “I will have to close it.” In 2010, the Bridgton Food Pantry received $6,500 in EFSP funds.

The federal cuts couldn’t come at a worse time, local food pantry volunteers say. Not only is the need way up, but private donations from individuals and businesses are way down, thanks to the sluggish economy.

“We’ve had to stop government food night, because we haven’t had enough food for them,” said Barbara Merrill, director of the Harrison Food Pantry that operates out of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The program stopped in July. Harrison families used to get a variety of veggies and fruits, along with the usual corn, peanut butter, juice and spaghetti through the program. But last month “All I got was cream-style and regular corn. There’s not enough to give to fill a bag or a box,” she said. “There’s not even half enough for the families that we have.”

Merrill said donations from local grocery stores are way down at the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Auburn and Portland, where the Harrison Food Pantry and others get much of their food. “They don’t have nearly as much food as they used to have,” Merrill said. “Instead of having 180-250 boxes of food to go through, they only have 20-30 boxes to go through.”
In Naples, CrossWalk Community Outreach, the larger of the two pantries in town, had relied on federal funding for 50% of its budget. Now those funds are gone. The program serves 100-130 meals and provides food boxes for 90-plus families every other Monday out of the Naples Town Hall.

“We’re hoping that when people hear about what’s happening, they’ll come together as a community and help out. It really comes down to a community taking care of their own,” said Joanna Moore, CrossWalk’s secretary. “People are only one life event from being in a position to be in a line to get food.”

Harrison’s Merrill said 70% of Harrison’s school-age children qualify for free school lunches. “The need is the greatest that it has ever been. And yet ours is one of the pantries that may end up having to close if we don’t get more donations in.”
Local grocery stores have traditionally been generous in donating selected grocery items to the pantries, but food providers say these sources have lately cut back on donations because of the economy.

“Hannaford and Food City have been fantastic, they’re really pulling their load in this town,” Davenport said, but added that they cannot do it alone. Moore agreed that the local grocery stores have been very generous, but that “They, too, have had to tighten their belts.”

The same thing goes for Good Shepherd, which donates food it collects from suppliers to local food pantries and meals programs, in addition to selling it. The EFSP funding elimination has hurt them, too. The less they are able to get in, the less they are able to give out.

The food pantry directors say they have seen a significant increase in the need for food just over the past several months.
“I’ve been the director at the Bridgton Food Pantry for 12 or 13 years, and for most of that time, we’ve had 40 to 50 families,” Davenport said. “Now we’re seeing anywhere from 50 to 85 families.”

At CrossWalk in Naples, the need has gone up by 40% in the past year. The faith-based Naples program is fortunate to have a strong group of dedicated volunteers who actively seek out non-government donations. Since their meals program and food pantry began in 2008, they have also greatly benefited from the strong support of Naples Town Manager Derik Goodine, who arranged for them to have free use of the town hall and recently helped them secure grant funding.
“If we hadn’t had him behind us, I think we would have had a hard time just keeping alive,” Moore said. “It really comes down to a community taking care of its own.”

Bridgton’s other food pantry, a monthly program at St. Joseph Catholic Church, is also in better shape than other rural food pantries because of a strong tradition of private support, says its director, Chris Minnicozzi.

“There’s no way we could do it without our parishioners,” she said. “They really care about feeding the needy.” Like other pantry directors, Minnicozzi also goes after small grants; she recently received one through the Peoples Regional Opportunity Program that allowed her to purchase 10 pull-behind shopping carts so people without transportation can transport the boxes of food from the church to their home.

CrossWalk also recently received a Community Development Block Grant that will pay for transportation of food supplies from Auburn or Portland to Naples, thereby saving gas costs that traditionally have been borne by volunteers.

The food pantry crisis has been growing since 2009, as a study released in March of 2011 by Good Shepherd and the national Feeding America program showed:

“In Maine, 43 percent of the food insecure population does not qualify for food stamps or other government programs, so they often rely on Good Shepherd Food-Bank and other charities to help feed themselves and their families,” said Rick Small, Executive Director of Good Shepherd Food-Bank, on their website.

“This gap in the food budget equates to more than 33.2 million missing meals in Maine in 2009. Government programs and nonprofit hunger-relief organizations work to fill the meal gap, but it is clear that, as the rate of food insecurity continues to rise, additional resources are needed,” the website states.

Harrison’s Merrill said her program has had to buy most of the food it gives out now, rather than have it donated by Good Shepherd or Wayside Soup Kitchen in Portland. “We need a lot more cash donations coming in. There’s so many more people hungry now.”

Moore, who serves on the board of a food security council for Cumberland County that began a month ago, said she prefers to see the cup half-full instead of half-empty, and is optimistic that as stakeholders in communities learn of the scope of the crisis, they will come together to solve it.

“Maine is the third hungriest state in the nation — and we just lost funding for six counties,” she said. “And yet the (federal) Stimulus bill funded projects for such things as determining the sex of butterflies. People need to re-evaluate their priorities. If we ever had to close our doors, what do you think people are going to do if they’re hungry?”

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