Hunger Symposium begins to break false stereotypes

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CARING ABOUT HUNGER — Tilla Durr, standing, left, addresses panelists at the Nov. 9 symposium on Hunger Insecurity and Agricultural Sustainability. Seated from left are Carmen Lone, executive director of the Bridgton Community Center; Joanna Moore, coordinator of CrossWalk Community Outreach of Naples; Jamel Torres, Bridgton Community Gardens; Nancy Grieg, Maine Cooperative Extension; Terry Garnette, Sweden Food Pantry; and Naomi King, Pietree Orchards. (Geraghty Photos)

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

From farms and food pantries, nonprofits and churches, the people who care about hunger came together Nov. 9 with people who care about sustainable agriculture and the Lake Region economy.

Around 40 people gathered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church with an arguably ambitious agenda: to start working together to help and support one another in their common goals; to build a coalition with the power to make government stand up and join their efforts, so that no one need ever feel ashamed about not having enough to eat.

“This isn’t about rich people giving to poor people. This is about us giving to one another,” said Tilla Durr, a member of St. Peter’s Church and organizer of the region’s first Hunger Insecurity and Agricultural Sustainability Symposium. “That’s the beginning of community, when we stop judging.”

The day began by viewing the film, A Place at the Table, which looks at federal policies and uses case studies to break false stereotypes of who is hungry. Those attending reinforced the message the film conveyed: that increasingly, hunger is impacting everyday working families who find it increasingly hard to get by without help.

“These people aren’t them, they’re us,” said Bob Mawhinney. “There is nobody in this room who is immune from needing help.”

With the middle class thinning rapidly over the past five years, many more people are going hungry than ever before, and individual food pantries and communities can no longer handle the problem of hunger on their own, said Father Craig Hacker of St. Peter’s Church. A regional response is needed, one that promotes a new understanding, that economic development and community development aren’t opposing interests, but must be married in spirit.

Joanna Moore, coordinator of CrossWalk Community Outreach in Naples, said she serves 100 families every other week, and many of those people come from working families.

“We made a decision as a board early on to serve whomever is hungry,” said Moore of CrossWalk, which offers both a community kitchen and food pantry twice a month. “If someone’s humble enough to come through the door and they say they’re hungry, we feed them.”

That’s true even if they don’t meet the federal guidelines, but CrossWalk is only able to take such an approach because it doesn’t rely on federal money.

Ray Turner said that at the Bridgton Food Pantry, where he volunteers, federal guidelines must be followed, “so we’re somewhat selective on who we can serve.” He and others make the 40-mile round trip to the Good Shepherd Food-Bank to pick up produce, which is free, but other staples must be bought at 16 cents a pound — and the pantry needs to get between 900 and 1,500 pounds of food each trip.

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PEACHES ARE HER PASSION — Naomi King of Pietree Orchards said of her work as business manager, “There’s no part of my mission I don’t love.”

“We need to find ways to switch the economy of food” in the region from big agribusiness to small-scale sustainable agriculture, as the film suggests, said Carmen Lone, executive director of the Bridgton Community Center. “We need to find the political will to do it, and keep pounding on it until it does happen.”

Heather Zimmerman, an Americorps Vista worker at the Preble Street Resource Center, said people think they are doing all they can by donating food or money to their local food pantry. But it is also just as critical, especially currently, to make repeated calls to local legislators, she said. In a Farm Bill now before Congress, slated for decision next month, the Senate is proposing to cut $4.5 billion from the federal food stamp program, she pointed out. Other nutrition programs would also suffer significant cuts.

Durr said the food subsidy system favors cheap, processed food over healthy food.

“Good foods are costly. Changing that system is going to be a long-term proposition. And it isn’t going to happen until we come together,” she said.

In the afternoon panel discussion at the symposium, Moore said CrossWalk’s vision is the same as every other food pantry — to feed people with dignity, and teach them the skills to grow and cook healthy food on their own.

“The most important thing that’s happening is that we’re all sitting together,” she said. “If we all work together, we can have a huge impact.”

A big part of that mission means working with progressive small farming concerns in the Lake Region like Pietree Orchard, symposium members agreed. Naomi King said the Sweden orchard is doing its part to educate the public.

“There’s no part of my mission I don’t love,” she said. “At the same time, even if we max out, we’re still not making this part (of western Maine) food secure.” She said the region needs more education for farmers, to change the “get in, get out” mentality that dominates large agricultural businesses.

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COMING TOGETHER — Terry Garnette, former coordinator of the Sweden Food Pantry, right, gets a hug from symposium participant Ursula Duve.

King said one crucial component would be to promote the creation of local processing facilities for farm products, such as cheese-making concerns and canning businesses.

Terry Garnette, one of the original coordinators of the Sweden Food Pantry, said she’s been a recipient of the pantry’s food.

“The one thing we could do a far better job of is to make people feel they are not just beneficiaries of charity but are also needed and wanted,” she said.

One simple way to accomplish that is to encourage pantry recipients to give back by volunteering.

Lone said it is important for everyone who cares to help change the perception about who is hungry.

“All of us can say, we’re just one life situation away from needing that help ourselves.”

Father Craig called the symposium “an exceedingly successful day,” and said the signup sheet will be used to keep everyone in contact as the group begins to formulate an action plan.

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