Commentary: A public-private partnership can pave the way to a hunger-free Maine

As Maine continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us reflect on lessons learned during this difficult and devastating time. While we long for normalcy in some ways, we have learned that many of our pandemic-era emergency responses have paved the way for a better and new normal, including how our state and our nation address the fight against hunger.

When the pandemic hit, the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and more than 600 partner organizations across the state responded with resilience and strength to an unprecedented and unpredictable increase in need as the issue of hunger dominated the headlines. newspapers. Increased awareness led to an influx of philanthropic support that appropriately funded the food bank for the first time in decades. This, combined with an increase in food through the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, resulted in a 25% increase in food distribution through the Maine Charity Food Network.

At the same time, the government stepped in with a higher monthly allocation of SNAP benefits, expanded access to food for children, advanced child tax credit payments and issued stimulus checks. The State of Maine has taken advantage of expanding safety net programs and has worked diligently to enroll eligible Mainers to help stabilize lives. The state also increased funding for Meals on Wheels and became the second state in the nation to guarantee free school lunches for all children, in addition to other legislative efforts.

We now know that this unique public-private partnership has led to Maine’s lowest hunger rates in nearly 20 years. According to the USDA’s recently released 2021 U.S. Household Food Security Report, which is based on data collected during the height of expanded safety net programs, Maine’s food insecurity rates have fallen below the national average in 2021 at 9.5%.

As we applaud the drastic improvements in 2021, we must not lose sight of our neighbors still affected by hunger. An estimated 159,000 Mainers were still food insecure in 2021, with 75,000 of our neighbors falling into the concerning category of very low food insecurity, marked by meal skipping and reduced food intake. While food insecurity rates have improved for some populations, Black, Indigenous and other people of color households are disproportionately affected, as are people 65 and older and people living alone. More action is needed.

Now, the same government support that has sustained an unprecedented reduction in hunger rates is about to be reversed. Pandemic-related increases to SNAP benefits are set to expire this fall, just as inflation and fuel oil prices take their toll. As the Portland Press Herald reports, food pantries across the state are seeing an increase in the use of their services. Community organizations are trying to predict and prepare for what the winter months will bring as a perfect storm of reduced government benefits, increased cost of living and decreased donations gathers and slowly turns to the horizon.

Among the many lessons learned during the pandemic, we now know this: the Charity Food Network alone will not be enough to end hunger, and adequate funding and the expansion of federal benefits effectively combats hunger in our communities. We must not go back and return to normal, especially in the face of record inflation. Now is the time for Mainers to reach out to their state and federal representatives and candidates for the midterm elections and urge them to develop and support a comprehensive policy and funding package that makes the interventions permanent. policies that have proven effective in reducing hunger. Together, let’s use this new knowledge, experience and momentum to invest in the people of Maine, our greatest asset, and to end hunger for good.

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Christy J. Olson