Effort underway to tackle food insecurity in Cumberland County

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PORTLAND — A coalition of about 40 public, private and non-profit organizations is working to increase accessibility to food for those who need it.

The coalition has launched the Campaign to Promote Food Security, an effort to ensure food access for vulnerable populations throughout Cumberland County.

“There is no reason anyone in Cumberland County should go hungry,” said Victoria Loring, a member of the board of the United Way of Greater Portland and former board member at Preble Street. “By working together, we can find the most effective and efficient solutions to this problem.”

The effort comes against a backdrop of the lingering recession, where jobs are scarce and those who are working are finding their money does not go as a far as it once did. Meanwhile, legislators are considering a supplemental budget from Gov. John Baldacci that would close a $438 million budget hole with significant cuts to human services and education.

“We’ve reached a tipping point in the last year,” said Michael Brennen, a policy associate at the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service.

According to Muskie School Professor Mark Lapping, an expert in regional food distribution who is advising the coalition, Maine has experienced the largest increase in people needing food assistance in the country.

“In the first half of the last decade, the number of Maine families who were hungry increased by 3.3 percent,” Lapping said in a press release. “This was the largest increase of any other state in the country.”

Over the next 12 months, the coalition will examine policies and programs that affect food security for vulnerable populations, including food stamps, emergency shelters, general assistance, Meals on Wheels, school lunch programs and the like.

The group plans to have public hearings and hopes to release an action plan to create a county-wide food access system in December.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is identify measurable goals and outcomes that we can see over the next three to four years,” Brennen said.

Brennen said the group must first get a read on the actual need that exists in Cumberland County and examine how federal, state and local programs address those needs.

While it’s well known that the homeless and many in the immigrant population need food assistance, Brennen said the current economy and looming state cuts have put the county’s elderly population at risk, too.

Although the group will take stock of the quantity of food being donated to food pantries, Brennen said it is also important to look at the quality of those foods. Ultimately, the group would like to work with local farmers to put their products in food pantries and soup kitchens.

“Usually, emergency food is looked at as surplus food from the public and private sectors,” Brennen said. “But we also want to make sure people are getting healthy food. It’s very important, especially for young people, to get appropriate and healthy food.”

The coalition is being funded through a grant from the TD Charitable Foundation and in cooperation with the United Way of Greater Portland, Preble Street and the Muskie School.

Muskie spokeswoman Jennifer Hutchins said it is the first time a coalition of such a broad range of groups has been assembled to tackle food security.

“As far as we know, this is the first time a public-private non-profit has come together and said, ‘OK, we need to come up with a food distribution system in Cumberland County to first reduce food insecurity and ultimately try to eliminate it’,” Hutchins said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]