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Tough choices: Heat your home or feed your family?

By Ryan Fecteau, Communications & Marketing Coordinator

Mainers are known for their hardiness. Whether working in the woods or out on the fishing boat, they live the long-told tale of hard work passed down to them from mothers and fathers who earned livings without much fanfare. Times are not always easy. Maine’s unpredictable winters invite cold temperatures and significant snowfall. As a result, maintaining one’s household finances can be equally unpredictable. The coldest winters might mean several unbudgeted oil deliveries. For those living on a fixed income, an extra oil delivery results in tough choices: a warm house or a warm meal?

This is certainly the case for Catherine, 54, of Biddeford. She lives off a pension and Social Security Disability (SSDI). Expenses are many including a mortgage, insurance, property taxes, groceries, heating oil, medications, and providing for her teenage grandson who lives with her. Catherine’s husband passed away a few years ago from cancer. Between her pension and SSDI, she just exceeds the income threshold and does not qualify for any food assistance.

“Every month I have to struggle between buying oil, food, and my medications,” shares Catherine. “The oil always wins. So, I am forced to make sure my grandson has food and I go without.”

Unfortunately, Catherine’s story is not unique. A recent report released by the Food Bank and Preble Street surveyed over 2,000 food pantry users. Of those surveyed, 73 percent said they made trade-offs between food, medication, heating oil, or some other necessity. Mainers like Catherine spend their time debating what priority can be sacrificed.

“I feed my children before I feed myself,” agonized a mother, surveyed in the report, from the Lakes Region. “And I hate this, but I have to limit the portions that [my children] can have for a meal.”

As household budgets come apart at the seams and tough choices become overwhelming, Catherine and others rely on local food pantries for help. Fifty-nine percent of the Mainers surveyed in this recent report said they used a food pantry more in 2016 than they did in 2015. The increased usage strains local pantries that rely on volunteers and donations to maintain operations.

“The only help I receive is food from the food pantries,” adds Catherine. “I’m struggling.”

The hardiness of Mainers is admirable, but food insecurity pushes this character trait to the brink. When folks like Catherine choose between food or medications or heating oil, hardiness cannot mitigate the risks posed to health and well-being—not to mention pride. Tens of thousands of Mainers are making tough choices concerning the essentials that others take for granted. Food, medicine, a warm home – these should not be trade-offs, they should be accessible for all.