Hunger in Foodie Paradise

Have you ever eaten a Maine lobster? Seen an award-winning Downeast chef on the Food Network? Or maybe you’ve visited a widely acclaimed Maine restaurant pioneering the farm-to-table concept. No question about it…Maine is a foodie paradise! But what you may not know is that it’s also a state facing significant food insecurity, especially among its youngest and oldest populations.

How U of Maine Cooperative Extension “Harvest for Hunger” is addressing hunger…

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Harvest for Hunger program’s mission is to “create a replicable, self-sustaining system of collecting, storing and distributing Maine-grown food to food-insecure Mainers.” Maine Master Gardener volunteers – and so many others – are addressing this growing challenge in myriad ways!

Maine Harvest for Hunger (Photo courtesy: Cumberland County Extension, ME)
Maine Harvest for Hunger (Photo courtesy: Cumberland County Extension, ME)

First let’s look at some statistics… While food insecurity affects people in every state, Maine has several unique challenges:

  1. New England’s highest rates of both child and senior food insecurity;
  2. a rapidly graying population which may reduce the number of home gardeners contributing to the program while at the same time increasing the number of households requesting help;
  3. geographical/resource diversity that makes collecting and distributing food particularly time sensitive; and
  4. social factors that often mask real need in some of the state’s wealthiest enclaves. Plus Maine has a substantial transient population that may not have a place, or perhaps the knowledge, to prepare fresh foods.

Growing out of the national Plant a Row for the Hungry effort, the great success of the Maine Harvest for Hunger program (209,178 pounds of produce donated statewide in 2012) is possible because of a dedicated network of home gardeners, community gardens, farms and orchards, food businesses, and countless volunteers who grow, glean or collect produce and see that it gets to the food pantries and soup kitchens for timely distribution.

Where the food comes from…

Out of the 200,000+ pounds donated statewide last year, 121,118 pounds was grown specifically for the program while 89,710 pounds were gleaned from local farms and orchards. Groups growing for the program have included co-worker teams at Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook Maine, employees at Harvard Pilgrim Insurance Company in Portland who are raising veggies in an innovative roof garden, many school and community gardens and even inmates at some of the county jails.

How the food is gathered…

This is often the biggest challenge for any food donation and distribution program. While some produce is fairly sturdy and has a reasonable shelf life – think potatoes, squash and onions – much produce needs to be picked and distributed within a very short time – think berries, tomatoes and cucumbers -, and often on very short notice: a BIG challenge for any volunteer-based organization. Master Gardener volunteers have answered the call to pick or glean time and again throughout the harvesting season. And beyond the gathering of fresh produce, even minimal storage space, especially refrigerated storage, is not always available on a widespread basis.


Maine Hunger for Harvest
Maine Master Gardeners (Photo courtesy: Cumberland County Extension Office, ME)

Where the food goes…

One out of every seven households in Maine is food insecure, and that includes families in the sparsely populated north of the state and the much more urbanized – and wealthy – southern half of the state. Food pantries in some of Maine’s wealthiest towns have seen sharply increased demand in recent years, and yes, they are meeting that need!

Maine’s primary food distribution partners are food banks, local food pantries and soup kitchens. The Good Shepard Food Bank, which serves our entire state, distributed an astonishing 13 MILLION pounds of food last year, often through local pantries and soup kitchens. In many areas of the state, local food pantries are really struggling to meet their mission by limited hours and volunteers available, and by a lack of much-needed refrigerated storage.

In Cumberland County, Maine’s most populous county, Portland’s Wayside Food Programs has been an invaluable Harvest for Hunger ally and partner. Wayside increases access to nutritious food to those in need by providing mobile food pantries, building community through (free) shared meals, and helping teach people to grow some of their own foods. A new facility which has consolidated Wayside’s operations, is expected to vastly increase their ability to preserve future harvests and expand outreach programs.

But, let’s go back to the idea of Maine as a total delight for any foodie… Thanks to the efforts of a great many volunteers in the Maine Harvest for Hunger program, much is being done to alleviate food insecurity in Maine, and perhaps THAT is really what “foodie paradise” really means!

Is there a food insecurity challenge in your area? Are Master Gardeners helping to feed the hungry?

Please share your stories and help us spread your good ideas!

Mary Webber
Yarmouth, Maine