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Feeding America Study Confirms Growing Rates of Food Insecurity Across Maine Communities 

New data released from Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap study this week confirms what people in Maine and the statewide hunger relief network have been experiencing over the past two years: rates of food insecurity are on the rise. 

Based on this new data, Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine reports that population-level rates of food insecurity grew from 10.5 percent in 2021 to 13 percent in 2022, resulting in an estimated additional 35,000 people in Maine struggling to find room in their household budgets for food. All told, one in eight or 180,000 people in Maine experienced food insecurity in 2022, including one in five or 46,000 children. 

“While this new data is startling, it is not a surprise based on what we’ve been hearing from our community partners,” says Heather Paquette, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “People in Maine experienced drastic increases in the cost of food and other basic needs in 2022, and the more than 600 partners we work with statewide have been seeing steady increases in the number of households depending on them.” 

Based on trends in the statewide hunger relief network, Good Shepherd Food Bank expects even higher rates of food insecurity as data from 2023 comes to light, as pandemic-era SNAP benefits were rolled back in the first quarter of 2023, compounding the impacts of inflation, and reducing household financial security. A sampling of data from 40 community food pantries shows double-digit percentage increases in both visits and households served between 2022 and 2023, with some partners anecdotally sharing even sharper increases.  

In response, the Food Bank is on track to distribute nearly 40 million meals through Maine’s charitable food network during its fiscal year ending in June, a 19 percent increase from the prior year. 

Map the Meal Gap 

This newest dataset represents a shift to the highest rates of food insecurity in Maine since before the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic initially caused a sharp spike in food insecurity across Maine communities, multi-pronged public support, including increased SNAP benefits, quickly mitigated the crisis and ultimately led to the lowest rates of hunger in decades before inflation took hold in 2022. 

According to the Map the Meal Gap study, the national average cost per meal has increased to $3.99, its highest point in the last two decades, even after adjusting for inflation. The average price per meal in Maine grew to $4.19 in 2022. The study shows that in Maine, the total amount of extra money needed for people who are food insecure to cover their food needs grew 45 percent between 2021 and 2022 to over $140 million. 

“We all know from managing household budgets that food is an area where you can cut back when expenses grow, and that is even more true when food costs are higher,” says Paquette. “More and more of our neighbors are relying on the charitable food network to meet their household food needs as they carefully manage their budgets.” 

This is echoed by the recent 2023 ALICE in Maine: A Study of Financial Hardship report, produced by the United Ways of Maine, which demonstrates that a striking 42 percent of Maine households struggle to afford the basics, including food, in the communities where they live. The study accounts for households below the poverty line and households categorized as asset limited, income constrained, and employed (ALICE). 

According to the Feeding America study, only about half of the people in Maine experiencing food insecurity in 2022 qualified for SNAP benefits, meaning the remaining 50 percent earned more than the threshold to receive benefits but didn’t make enough to afford food and other basic needs.  

“We have been strategically growing our food distribution for the past decade, including more nutritious and culturally relevant food,” shared Paquette, “but growth at this rate and continuing meal distribution at this scale is both unsustainable and not the answer to building food security across our communities.” 

Paquette says the Food Bank is in regular contact with Maine’s congressional delegation and state policy leaders and works in partnership with other leading Maine nonprofits and members of the Feeding America network to bolster federal and state safety net programs. The aim is to strengthen the financial security of Maine households and reduce the demand on the charitable food network. 

“Until we as a collective society grapple with the systemic issues that underlie widespread household financial insecurity, we will continue to find ourselves on the hamster wheel of higher demand in the charitable food network,” says Paquette. 

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap is the only study that provides local-level estimates of food insecurity and food costs for every county and congressional district. The study builds upon the USDA’s latest report of national and state data, which showed a sharp increase in food insecurity in 2022 amidst historically high food prices and the expiration of many pandemic-era programs. Map the Meal Gap emphasizes the urgent call for us to act.