Food insecurity continues to affect families throughout Aroostook, say local experts
AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — For many people in all regions of Aroostook County, having enough food to get through each month is not always as simple as buying whatever they need at the grocery store.
“We see families who are working, sometimes two or three jobs, and try their best to make ends meet but still struggle,” said Charlene Buzza, director of volunteer services for Grace Interfaith Food Table in Presque Isle.
GIFT is open during the first four Wednesdays of every month from 9 a.m. until noon, during which Buzza and volunteers assist individuals and families who previously made appointments to pick up food. On those days, Buzza has found that senior citizens and families with young children are some of the primary people served, the ones who struggle with food insecurity on a daily basis.
Every year, GIFT serves hundreds of families and individuals who typically come to the food pantry once a month to gather enough food to last them until the next month. Many of those families, Buzza said, are those who are stuck in generational poverty without the financial means to afford quality insurances or education that would increase their job skills and qualifications. Many families and senior citizens also struggle with the high cost of living in Aroostook, particularly in winter when fuel and heating costs rise.
“Families who have children often cannot afford daycare, so it’s easier for one parent to stay home. That also means they might not be able to afford health insurance to cover their entire family,” Buzza said.
Such factors have greatly contributed to Aroostook being among the counties in Maine with the highest rates of food insecurity, which is described as households reporting reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.
A study that Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and the Portland-based nonprofit organization Preble Street conducted in 2017 found that Aroostook’s rate of food insecurity was 17.1 percent, topped only by Washington County at 17.2 percent.
Data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that same year indicates that Maine is the state in New England with the highest rate of food insecurity. Between 2015 and 2017, 14.4 percent of households were classified as food insecure, with 6.4 classified as “very food insecure” meaning that they reported running out of food, skipping meals and going hungry.
Although there are 24 food pantries located throughout Aroostook County, senior citizens who live in smaller communities and are homebound might miss out on opportunities to stock up on much-needed food. Crystal Hughes of Wallagrass has been a social worker in the St. John Valley for 15 years and this past fall worked with senior citizens as part of an internship for her graduate social studies work through the University of Maine.
“Much of our older population is homebound, have physical challenges or lack the transportation to get to the food pantries,” Hughes said. “Often, seniors who are on fixed incomes have to choose paying for their medication over having extra food.”
During her internship, Hughes often made referrals to Meals on Wheels on behalf of clients who qualified for the program — which is operated by the Aroostook Agency on Aging — and arranged for transportation so that some might have access to local food pantries. In the St. John Valley region, pantries are located in Eagle Lake, Frenchville, Grand Isle, Madawaska, Fort Kent, Van Buren, St. Francis and Sinclair.
Even folks who do not work for a social service or healthcare agency can help their neighbors and fellow residents who they suspect might be food insecure, Hughes said. Providing a ride to the nearest food pantry or delivering a bag of food to their neighbors are just two small but meaningful ways in which they could make a difference.
“People in the smaller communities tend to have less access to food pantries or deliveries, but in those areas there are a lot of people who look out for each other. Many food pantries are also willing to deliver food,” Hughes said. “I’m not sure if those stories happen as much in larger areas of the state.”
For Dixie Shaw, director of hunger and relief services at Catholic Charities in Aroostook County, helping the most vulnerable populations such as senior citizens and young families has become the mission for her and her volunteers. Catholic Charities operates two climate-controlled warehouses in Caribou and Monticello that stored a record 1.5 million pounds of food that they distributed to all pantries in Aroostook County in 2018.
Catholic Charities also delivers commodity food packages to designated locations in Fort Kent, Monticello, Van Buren, Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle, Mars Hill and Houlton as part of the Aroostook Agency on Aging’s commodity supplemental food program. Due to an increase in USDA funds, Catholic Charities was able to deliver 1,300 packages, a substantial increase over 455 packages in 2017.
The organization also serves as the distribution agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s TeFap Program and operates Farm For ME, a six-acre farm that grows fresh vegetables for distribution to Catholic Charities’ food pantries in The County and statewide through their partnership with Good Shepherd Food Bank. Shaw said she is glad to see an increase in awareness surrounding food insecurity and in people who are willing to donate food or volunteer time to help their neighbors.
“I remember when I was in school, we would wonder why certain kids would bring peanut butter sandwiches for their lunch everyday. We didn’t realize until we were older that some people just don’t have much other food in the house,” Shaw said. “I think today, a lot more is being done to address these issues.”
GIFT, located at 24 Industrial Street in Presque Isle, is one of the food pantries that receives food from Catholic Charities each month, in addition to regular donations from area churches, civic organizations and individuals, and quarterly deliveries from the USDA. Buzza supervises around 20 regular volunteers, most of whom are senior citizens and who help individuals pick out food, unload trucks of food donations, and stock shelves.
Buzza said that GIFT accepts non-perishable food items such as soups, canned chicken, green beans, tuna fish, pasta, packaged rice, corn and shelf-ready milk, and encourages anyone interested in volunteering to contact the pantry at (207) 764-8584.
“We never would be able to operate without volunteers,” Buzza said, “or without the support we’ve received from the community.”