Food pantries under pressure: Harsh weather, reduced government support create need in Falmouth, other towns
FALMOUTH — A national reduction in food assistance benefits, tougher standards for general assistance, and an unusually bitter winter have combined to form a perfect storm at area food pantries.
Throughout Cumberland County, the pressure on food pantries has increased as families face high heating costs and an across-the-board 5 percent cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The cuts to the federal SNAP program took effect Nov. 1, 2013, and the outcome has been obvious, said Don Morrison, operations manager for Wayside Food Programs.
Wayside is a Portland-based non-profit food salvage charity that locates damaged, discontinued, surplus or otherwise unwanted food and distributes it to 47 food agencies throughout Cumberland County.
"The demand from our partner agencies is way up," Morrison said.
The year-to-year difference for December was an increase of 13 percent, according to data provided by Morrison.
In December 2012, the program shipped 38,000 pounds of food to pantries. A year later, in December 2013, the program shipped 43,000. The number of recipients increased by 23 percent, from 52,000 to 64,000 people, during those same periods.
The town of Cumberland, for instance, had a record-setting week in late December, Morrison said.
At the Falmouth Food Pantry the increase is also significant. This year, the pantry served 240 families during January, compared to 195 families a year ago, according to the pantry's president, Dotty Blanchette.
"We're seeing some serious nutritional challenges," Blanchette said.
Changes to benefits at the state and federal levels have pushed the burden onto charities, she said.
"They want food pantries to pick up the slack and it has become harder and harder for all of us," Blanchette said. "We are fortunate that we have wonderful support from the churches and the community, more so than other communities, I think."
The pantry has grown significantly during the six years it has existed. Initially, the charity served 35 families. Today, there more than 300 client families. (Many families visit every other month.) The pantry has 90 volunteers and serves Falmouth and the surrounding communities, including Portland.
Some of the increased numbers are due to a new partnership with Westbrook. Earlier this month, the pantry agreed to provide supplemental food to needy Westbrook families that aren't adequately covered by their town's safety net. The pantry had been serving Westbrook residents before, but the partnership formalized the relationship.
The additional families make Falmouth Food Pantry eligible for a $40,000 grant to help expand their existing facility at Town Hall by 30 percent, Blanchette said.
The pantry also provides general assistance, such as help with heating oil costs, minor car repairs, school books and more.
The volunteers also perform home visits.
"People are always shocked by how many families we serve in Falmouth, but there are so many hidden poor here," she said. "These families are underemployed, disabled or single-mothers. I think it's important to know that most of our families are working at least part time."
The pantry receives food and supplies from Wayside Food Programs, Hannaford grocery stores, several charities and all Falmouth churches, but this year it has been a struggle to keep adequate food stores, Blanchette said.
Earlier in February, Gorham Savings Bank launched a food drive that runs through the end of the month. More than a dozen businesses are accepting food donations for the pantry.
So far, Blanchette said, the drive has been "so-so."