PORTLAND — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with just over 15 percent of Maine households considered food insecure, Maine is the 13th hungriest state in the nation and hungriest in the region.
Bowdoin College student Emma Johnson, 20, is trying to change that by educating people in greater Portland about resources available to the hungry.
On Monday, Johnson and Michelle Lamm of the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative visited Jewish Family Services in Portland to stock the organization’s refrigerator with fresh produce as a part of initiative’s Farm to Pantry program.
When they arrived at the pantry, they found the food they had delivered last week was gone. Except for three bunches of onions, the shelves of the pantry were nearly bare.
The food pantry at Jewish Family Services is small compared to others in the area Director Karli Efron said. But because supplies at the Good Shepherd Food Bank, JFS’s main supplier, are low, the organization has become increasingly dependent on donations like the ones from the Farm to Pantry program.
At the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, Johnson is the intern in charge of the Farm to Pantry program. She spends one day a week organizing deliveries to Jewish Family Services and other pantries in the area.
Johnson also travels to Brunswick once a week to do outreach work for Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention.
“One of the things that we do with a lot of food pantries (including Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention) is enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” she said.
Johnson said she travels to food pantries around the region and explains the benefits of the program, offers to help clients with the pre-screening test, and even fills out the full application with people who are computer illiterate or have no access to a computer.
Lamm said that this sort of outreach helps food pantry clients understand the program.
“I think somewhere around 30 percent of food pantry clients are not utilizing these benefits,” she said. “A lot of people who have applied in the past should apply again. Not everyone is eligible for the benefit, but a lot of (pantry clients) are.”
Johnson is also working with Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention to find more summer meal sites in Brunswick and the surrounding area.
“They (currently) have one open site, open to everybody up to age 18, and then there are two semi-closed sites in Lisbon, where you have to be enrolled in a program to get the meal,” she said. “We are trying to find more. It’s just a matter of finding out where the students (who need the meals) are concentrated.”
Last year, according to Lamm, the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative opened up 11 new sites where kids can get meals that they might not be getting at home. She also said that this year they are working on opening 12 more.
“(We have) learned that food pantry providers’ needs in the summertime quickly go up, because kids are out of school and (parents) are having to serve kids an additional two meals, breakfast and lunch, which they might have gotten at school,” she said.
Johnson said that the problem with creating school lunch sites in the Mid-Coast area is that there isn’t a centrally located, easily accessible site readily available.
“The problem I’m finding with a lot of the Mid-Coast towns is that they’re pretty rural and students are far apart,” she said. “In places like Portland, kids can walk and there’s a site right in their neighborhood and it’s a one-minute walk away. More students (in the Mid-Coast region) … will need to be driven because it’s too far to walk. We need to be creative.”
Lamm said Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention is preparing meals for its summer meal program at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in Brunswick and serving them at Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention.
Johnson hopes to continue her work the Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention when she returns to Bowdoin for her junior year in the fall. She said that she wants other students to get involved in the program.
She also said that working with the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative has reaffirmed her desire to pursue a similar career path, but that’s not all she is getting from her fellowship.
“I didn’t want to do it just for my career, because that’s not really one of my priorities. I figure I’ll get there when I get there,” she said. “I’m learning a lot about all of the different parts of a nonprofit because I’m not just working in an office, I’m volunteering in all different parts of the organization. I’ve seen client interactions, I’ve seen the government involvement and the advocacy. I’ve seen a lot of different parts of it, so it’s kind of giving me a lot of different perspectives.”
Emma Johnson with the fully stocked refrigerator at Jewish Family Services in Portland. The fresh produce was grown by Cultivating Community’s immigrant farmers.