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The hunger season - In a time of plenty, some families struggle to put food on the table
STATE — For many, summer means good eating – gardens and farmers markets overflow with fresh produce and the aroma of backyard grilling fills the air. It's hard to believe that people are going hungry.
But advocates say that for many food insecure families, particularly those with school-age children, summer is a lean time.
According to a 2010 report from the Campaign to Promote Food Security in Cumberland County, food insecurity describes "households who are uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they have insufficient money or other resources for food."
Put simply, to be food insecure means that families are unsure where their next meal is coming from and it is directly connected with poverty.
Feeding America, a non-profit advocating for food security in the U.S., estimates that over 16 percent – more than 9,000 people – in Oxford County are food insecure. The rate for children is even higher – 24.5 percent.
Some families rely on free/reduced lunch programs provided during the school year to fill the gap.
According to Clara McConnell, a Good Shepherd Food Bank representative, around 80,000 Maine children rely on the breakfast and lunch provided in school.
Sixty-three percent of Oxford Hills students qualify for free/reduced lunch. In some schools the number hovers around 75 percent.
Advocates say the figures reflect the scale of need in the area.
More than half
"When your school system has more than 50 percent receiving free or reduced lunch, that right there says enough to you," says Terry Johnson, an organizer at the Sweden House Food Pantry.
Johnson says that clients at the food pantry have been growing at a rate of one family per distribution day since January. She estimates the pantry now feeds 85 families two Wednesdays a month.
But even if the need is just as high, if not higher during the summer, donations often do not keep up with demand, explains GSFB's McConnell.
"It doesn't exactly coincide with when the issue is at the top of people's minds in the public," she says.
"Oftentimes we see a spike in support that we receive in the holidays, which is wonderful, but then it drops off afterwards."
McConnell says that families who struggle with hunger usually struggle to provide other resources – sometimes the food budget is the easiest thing for them to control, particularly if they are engaged in a job search.
"They need to keep their house, they need to keep their car, they need to stay on top of their bills ... the food budget is something they oftentimes feel like has to go first; it's something within their control that they can fall back on," she explains.
According to Wanda Braithwaite-Baril, the garden coordinator for Rural Community Action Ministry, food insecurity in the summer is "incredible."
"In the summer time, when the programs are not available, it's a really hard time for parents to make sure kids get three meals," Braithwaite-Baril says. "A lot of times they aren't."
RCAM's garden program assists people in Hartford, Sumner and Buckfield grow and preserve their own vegetables.
Braithwaite-Baril says summer hunger is scary because there is nothing to fill the gap – for many families, the supplemental meals children receive during the school year simply evaporate.
Across the state, groups are implementing summer lunch programs to address the issue, but access to the programs remains limited in Oxford Hills.
"The majority of schools don't offer a summer feeding program," says Barbara Murphy, the Maine Harvest for Hunger Coordinator in Oxford Hills. Harvest for Hunger provides fresh vegetables to food insecure families and individuals.
"Suddenly we get into summer and those two very critical meals [breakfast and lunch] may not be present," Murphy says.
Amy Russell, from St. Joseph's College in Standish, organizes summer lunch programs in Otisfield and Harrison with Maine Hunger Initiative, a Preble Street Resource Center program.
The free lunch program targets schools where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch.
Children up to age 18 can receive healthy, nutritious meals every afternoon along with learning programs and games.
In 2011, 75 percent of students at Harrison Elementary were eligible for free/reduced lunch. During the summer, the program feeds between 50 and 75 kids a day at the Harrison town beach, Russell says.
The program has to be public – it provides the free lunches to any children who show up, but Russell is sure that many kids come because there is little else at home.
"I've heard directly from ... parents [who say] 'I don't know what I'd feed my kids today if it wasn't for this,'" she says.
Russell admits that some kids who frequent the program are not struggling with food issues. At the same time, the program's openness helps remove some of the stigma attached to food insecurity.
"You're not given the stigma of 'oh, you're poor, come have a free meal,'" she says. "We make it more about the activity and the meal that goes on there."
She says the program in Harrison has been successful – more families have shown up this year than last.
The program in Otisfield, however, has struggled to reach kids, Russell says.
As Abby Farnham from Maine Hunger Initiative explains, because Otisfield is rural and spread out, reaching vulnerable kids is difficult.
There's no central meeting point in town and transportation costs can prohibit driving in for a free lunch every day, Farnham says.
She explains that this is a problem with a lot of summer lunch programs in rural locations – lack of common areas and long travel distances make reaching vulnerable populations difficult – in any season.
To find a list of local food pantries contact Community Concepts at 1-800-866-5588 or visit www.communityconcepts.org.
Harvest for Hunger accepts vegetable donations from local producers. Contact Barbara Murphy at 743-6329 to make a donation.