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Group takes aim at 'food insecurity' in Lakes Region

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Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 4:12 pm | Updated: 3:40 pm, Thu Oct 4, 2012.

STANDISH – In an effort to increase access to food throughout Cumberland Country, including the more rural sections of the Lakes Region, a new group is gaining steam in the fight against hunger.

The Cumberland County Food Security Council, overseen by the United Way of Greater Portland, has met three times since April. Their most recent all-day meeting took place at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish last Thursday.

The meeting drew about 25 food pantry providers, farmers, town officials and representatives from Good Shepherd Food-Bank and Wayside Food Rescue, which are the two main suppliers of discount food to area pantries.

While the issue of food security is massive and tied to the economy, the group is taking concrete steps to increase access to food for people struggling to make ends meet.

According to the United Way’s Rebecca Ermlich, who sits on the council, the group aims to raise community awareness of the need for more donations, increase connections between pantries, donors and food banks, and compile and share data in a more effective manner.

“We are looking at the big picture, at the entire county’s population, how we can increase their food security,” Ermlich said. “Rather than sitting in our office trying to figure out what to do, we decided to go into the community and ask, what do you see as your needs?”

The United Way has already played a huge role in local food access issues. Last year, it stepped in to supply food pantries when the federal government cut funding to Maine’s relatively richer counties.

Federal funding has been restored after local pantries petitioned federal officials, but the needs remain. Those needs range from food storage, food processing, and a general lack of volunteers and donations. The group aims to convey the need to not only potential donors but to local government officials in a “meaningful effective way that they can understand the needs in the community,” Ermlich said.

“Food insecurity” isn’t quite the same as hunger, since, thanks to food stamps and a multitude of welfare benefits, Americans are not starving. Food insecurity ranges from not knowing where the next meal is coming from or not having enough money to buy nutritious food. It can also include those people who don’t know how to cook.

Food insecurity is rampant. According to a November 2011 poll, food pantries in Cumberland County saw an average 42 percent increase in usage from 2010 to 2011. Some pantries saw a 100 percent increase.

“The group’s goal is to have more food available for people,” Ermlich said. “But in order to do that, you have to understand what are the barriers, and you have to be able to get over them. We’re trying to get everyone working together – farmers, food providers, pantry providers, government officials. These are the front-line people.”

Food pantry providers are in the very front of that battle line. People like Carmen Lone of the Bridgton Food Pantry, who sees food insecurity every day.

“We’re seeing people who are food insufficient," Lone said after last week's meeting. "We’re seeing working families with children, single adults who are working low-wage jobs, less hours with no benefits. So we’re increasingly seeing those kinds of people, which disturbs me greatly.”

Even those with a job are struggling, Lone says.

“You take a $1,000-a-month mortgage, car payment, house insurance, car insurance, car registration, a set of tires. After paying for a place to live and a vehicle, there’s not much money left at the end of the month. Food and medicine, they come last,” she said.

According to Bria White, coordinator for the Cupboard Collective at the Opportunity Alliance, the council has “more resources and more brain power and more possibility to impact our communities than we realize.”

The Cupboard Collective, which White created, pools resources from pantries in Bridgton, Naples and Casco, and soon Standish, to pay for a truck to haul food from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Auburn. Next year, the group may serve three countries since it’s been so successful at cutting costs. White says it’s one such tool that can be used to improve food access issues. Another tool, she added, is to form a buying club. At Thursday’s meeting, White talked about the need for pantries to pool resources to secure better rates for food, something Jeanne Reilly, food service director for the Windham-Raymond Regional School Unit 14, told the group is already being done by local schools aiming to save money.

White says having people like Reilly and Raymond Town Manager Don Willard, who was also present, is helpful.

“I think there are a lot of the same ideas circulating in the communities, but it’s so rare to have someone who uses a food pantry to someone who might run a food pantry to someone who might run a town all at the same table. That is a really unique opportunity,” White said.

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