Food pantries in greater Portland struggle to keep up with demand

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FALMOUTH — Susan Gardner lost her job as a machine operator at Fairchild Semiconductor last year after the pain from lung cancer surgery left her unable to do the manual labor required, and she could not operate machinery on painkillers.

Gardner, who is 52 and lives on Brook Road in Falmouth, receives state aid to help pay medical expenses and relies on her local food bank for practically all the food she eats.

Despite her challenges, Gardner smiles easily and considers herself lucky.

“I would like to think my life’s mantra is be open, agreeable and available,” she said.

She is in remission from cancer now and is hoping to go back to work soon, although she is physically limited in what she can do.

“I get short of breath sooner than the average person would be,” Gardner said.

But her other dilemma is that she is able to pay all her bills on the state aid she receives. A minimum-wage job would not provide the same level of financial support.

So Gardner relies on the Falmouth Food Pantry to supplement her bills by providing a place to get food every other week. Gardner doesn’t receive food stamps from the state and isn’t even sure she would qualify, based on her disability income.

“I would rather do a food pantry than food stamps,” she said. “Food stamps are a burden on the state. The food pantry is based on donations.”

But lately, donations have been scarce.

“It’s a serious, serious problem,” Wayside Food Rescue Program coordinator Don Morrison said in Portland.

Morrison said that while the 52 pantries his group supplies food to have seen dramatic increases in demand for their services, corporate donations from grocery stores, food processors and other sources have declined.

“Pantries are telling me they run out of food and there are still 10 families waiting,” Morrison said.

In Falmouth, one of the four volunteer food pantry coordinators, Nancy Lightbody, said there is frequently a line of people waiting when she opens the pantry’s door.

The nonprofit Falmouth Food Pantry currently has 268 active clients; more than 140 new clients signed up in the past year.

“Since April, at least 12 new families have signed up each month,” Lightbody said.

The small pantry, at Falmouth Town Hall, has seen a 100 percent increase in the number of families served in the past two years.

Lightbody said clients frequently cite a recent cut in food stamp allotments and the high cost of medical bills as the reasons they are turning to food pantries.

Morrison said Wayside is hearing the same thing from other pantries that utilize his organization’s services.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one in six Maine households struggled with hunger between 2008 and 2010, and the state has the sixth highest rate of “very low food security” in the nation.

Gov. Paul LePage recently declared September Hunger Action Month and urged Mainers to respond to calls for food donations.

Morrison said for Wayside and other food pantries this is food drive season, which helps keep pantry shelves stocked. But even then, the increase in demand is putting enormous pressure on a resources based entirely on donations, with no relief on the horizon.

He said hunger is not limited to a particular population, affecting families and the elderly alike.

“We’re not talking about the homeless or the extreme poor,” Morrison said. “We’re talking about the middle class.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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Falmouth resident Susan Gardner began using the the Falmouth Food Pantry, at Town Hall on Falmouth Road, after she was laid off and struggling with medical expenses. Pantries across the region have seen drastic increases in demand for their services as more and more Mainers find themselves “food insecure” due to layoffs, cuts in social services and rising medical expenses.

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