ELLSWORTH — Last year, more people in Maine went hungry than anywhere else in New England and much of the rest of the country, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report.
But this winter, several local organizations are working to change that. Two area nonprofits, Families First Community Center and Community Closet, are teaming up to get ready-to-eat food to families living outdoors, in cars and unheated buildings.
“It is a big issue,” in Hancock County, said Terri Ouellette, president of the board of directors at Families First. Ouellette said she couldn’t be sure of the scope of the problem in the region or how it had changed, but said “From the people I’ve talked to, whether it’s with the backpack programs at the school or with the food pantries, they say it’s definitely gotten worse. There’s a lot more need.”
“Some people are living in their car with kids,” Ouellette said. “Not everybody, but it’s not that unusual.”
According to federal data, Maine was the seventh most food insecure state in the nation last year. Roughly 16 percent of the state’s population said they were not able afford enough food for an active, healthy life for all family members.
Food cupboards on the porch of Families First’s 41 North St. location saw a constant stream of visitors this summer. And food cupboards at the Community Closet, a nonprofit on Eastward Lane run by Jacqueline Wycoff, was just as busy.
“You fill up the cupboard and in a day or so it’s gone,” Ouellette said.
While food cupboards supply groceries that often require preparation and food pantries are only open certain hours, the Community Closet and Families First stock their animal-proof pantries with items that don’t require heat or other preparation for families that don’t have electricity or hot water.
“Granola bars, crackers, peanut butter,” Ouellette said. “Something that you can eat without having to heat it up. Dry cereal, nuts.”
This winter, food will be moved from the porch at 41 North St. to the Community Closet at 25 Eastward Lane, which also supplies hygiene items, blankets and hats and mittens for free.
The pantry will be outside, open at all times to anyone who needs it.
Both organizations were recently awarded grants from Franklin Savings Bank totaling $15,000, with the Community Closet receiving $10,000 and Families First receiving $5,000.
Families First will use the funds to help finish building several rent-free, temporary apartments for families that need help getting their feet under them. The organization is also building a child care center and classroom space to teach free life-skills workshops on topics such as money management, cooking and resume writing.
In a blog post on the Community Closet website in April, Wycoff wrote about watching security camera footage of a group of teenagers taking a blanket from the rack on a winter night.
“It breaks my heart when in the middle of the night a person or group of people will come up to the rack and you will see them trying to find a coat and gloves that fit because it’s 10 degrees out and they sleep outside,” Wycoff wrote.
“It’s not my business why they are where they are,” she continued. “I don’t care if it’s because of choices they have made; I do care that human beings are cold and hungry.”
To make a donation to replenish the cupboard, contact Families First Community Center at 460-3711, the Community Closet at 266-7242 or email [email protected].