AUBURN, Maine – On the heels of distributing a record-setting 31.6 million meals to an estimated 182,000 Mainers experiencing hunger during its last fiscal year, Good Shepherd Food Bank is optimistic that recent federal and state efforts to fight hunger and put money in the pockets of low-income Mainers is helping to improve food security for some individuals and families. Yet, the state’s largest hunger-relief organization warns that Mainers need more support.
A release last week of the Household Food Security in the United States in 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that the overall food insecurity rate for Maine households dipped to 11.4 percent between 2018 and 2020, a decrease when compared to the previous three years. Despite that good news, Maine’s food insecurity rate is still higher than the national average. Maine also ranks fifth in the nation for very low food security rates, a more severe range of food insecurity that involves reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns. More than 31,000 Maine households fall into this concerning category.
“Rates of hunger were on the decline prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially caused an acute hunger crisis. This new data from the USDA indicates that predicted catastrophic rates of food insecurity were avoided in 2020 thanks to expansions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and school nutrition programming, such as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), which we advocated for during the pandemic,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “This means that some Mainers were able to access more nutritious food from their local grocery stores or schools rather than at a community food pantry.”
Miale warns that the overall improved numbers may not tell the whole story. “The USDA data isn’t exactly congruent with what we’re seeing on the ground. Our network of 500 partners increased its meal distribution by 16 percent during our last fiscal year, so the demand is clearly there,” Miale says. “Even with that increase, there is still a gap between the number of meals needed in Maine and the number that the federal safety net and the charitable food network is currently providing.”
The USDA report also shows national food insecurity rates improved for some sub-populations while worsening for others. In particular, Black and Latino households had higher-than-average rates of food insecurity, as did households with children. “While the new data does not specify how Maine’s food insecurity rates differ across racial and other demographic lines, we know that Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color experienced significant growth in need over the past year,” says Miale.
Good Shepherd Food Bank is optimistic that recent additional government interventions, like Maine’s adoption of free school meals for all children and the federal updates to the Thrifty Meal Plan and Child Tax Credit, will help Maine families stabilize their lives even further.
Investing in research and evaluation to better understand the problem of food insecurity in Maine and advocating for policies that reduce hunger are critical elements of Good Shepherd Food Bank’s bold goal of closing Maine’s meal gap before 2025. Research and advocacy are key areas of investment for the Food Bank’s $250 million Campaign to End Hunger in Maine, more than half of which has been raised to date.
“The charitable food network is here to fill the void in the federal and state safety net. When those programs are not funded sufficiently, our network is on the hamster wheel of providing more meals each year,” says Miale. “We can and will grow our nutritious food distribution to meet the urgent need of Mainers today, just like we did over the past year. Yet, we can also close Maine’s meal gap by advocating for policies and public/private partnerships that strengthen the safety net and address the root causes of hunger and poverty to reduce the demand on food pantries and meal sites across the state. Our work is not done until we have worked ourselves out of business.”