Report: Hunger increasing in Maine as assistance shrinks

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PORTLAND — Orianna Bennett and her family moved from coastal York County to Steep Falls, a village in Standish, two years ago seeking a fresh start.

Instead, they found health problems, precarious housing and hunger.

Bennett told her story in a press conference announcing “Hunger Pains,” a new joint research study by Preble Street and Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The event was held at Woodfords Congregational Church, where the Project Feed food pantry is open weekdays.

Bennett, who makes $9.25 an hour as a convenience store cashier, said she and her family were deemed ineligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, the federal program commonly called “food stamps.”

The family now relies in part on one allowed visit per month to a local food pantry.

“We get maybe three meals out of it,” Bennett said.

Her husband is unable to work because of a chronic medical condition, but she said her son tries to pitch in.

“He is a good kid; he’s worked since he could work,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s story was all too familiar to Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale, who said more than 15 percent of Mainers rely on food banks on “an ongoing basis.”

“This is not emergency relief,” Miale said. “This is chronic, systemic hunger.”

University of Southern Maine economics professor Michael Hillard oversaw research for the study.

“Now more than ever, we need policy based on solid evidence, not anecdotes,” Hillard said, citing the uneven economic recovery, low wages and lack of public transportation in Maine as factors that help give the state the third-highest rate of homes with “very low food security.”

The survey respondents came from 244 towns in Maine and all 16 counties. About two-thirds of those responding were women, and 93 percent were caucasian.

Survey responses showed 87 percent of households included a child, senior citizen or someone with a disability, with 86 percent of the respondents visiting food pantries at least once a month and 59 percent relying on them more than last year.

Delene Perley, a volunteer who coordinates other volunteers working at Project Feed, said the pantry served 8,000 meals to 400 clients last month, and attributed increases in demand to the state Department of Health and Human Services eligibility requirements for SNAP benefits.

Perley said Project Feed was established to provide food on an emergency basis, and now serves clients from the city, South Portland, Scarborough, Falmouth and Westbrook. It is open each weekday, but clients are limited to one visit every two months.

In 2015, the DHHS Food Supplement Program, which distributed the federal SNAP benefits through electronic benefit cards, began requiring recipients ages 18-49 without children to find work, job training or volunteer opportunities within three months of receiving benefits in order to keep getting them.

Hillard said the requirement is misguided.

“There is a mismatch between where the jobs are and where the people who need jobs live,” he said.

Recipients earning at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line must also have less than $5,000 in assets – bank account balances, second vehicles or property aside from primary homes – to qualify for the program.

The study estimates more than 9,000 Mainers lost benefits after the changes, and 486, or one in four, survey respondents reported they had become ineligible.

U.S. Navy veteran Elton Thornhill, of Rockland, was another former recipient who spoke.

“I don’t know how many of you know what it’s like to be hungry,” he said. 

Because of post-traumatic stress disorder and a bipolar diagnosis, Thornhill should not have been dropped from the benefit program. Advocates are trying to get him reinstated in program.

Thornhill said he wants to work, but a lack of transportation and his medical conditions are impediments.

“I’m lucky if I’m able to eat one good meal a day,” he said.

The study notes SNAP benefits extend beyond recipients: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the SNAP program provided $282 million of revenue to retailers in Maine.

It is estimated $5 of SNAP benefits can turn into $9 of economic value to local economies, and Miale said the state is turning away federal funding people need because of the eligibility changes.

“They are leaving money on the table,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Orianna Bennett of Steep Falls and her family were ruled ineligible for SNAP benefits and rely in part on a local food pantry while she works as a cashier. She spoke Feb. 9 at a Portland press conference detailing a new study on hunger in Maine.

Rockland resident Elton Thornhill, a Navy veteran, talks about losing SNAP benefits at a Feb. 9 press conference at Woodfords Congregational Church. “I’m lucky if I’m able to eat one good meal a day,” he said.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.