The coldest winter in a decade is forcing a growing number of Mainers to choose between paying for heat and buying food, putting pressure on food pantries that have already seen rising demand for help in the past two years.

“Winter is an extremely difficult time for Maine families who are struggling to access food,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food-Bank. “Many find themselves having to choose – do I pay for heating oil this month or do I buy food? And many families are sacrificing nutritious food and instead purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy items, which ends up having a serious impact on their health.”

Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which distributes food to pantries and soup kitchens across the state, will fight winter hunger using a $100,000 grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation. The grant, announced Thursday, will allow Good Shepherd to buy nutritious food – including fresh produce – to distribute to its network of food pantries and to build a storage area for root vegetables purchased from farmers in the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

About 15 percent of Maine households lack access to adequate amounts of nutritious food, according to the U.S. Department Agriculture. One in four children in Maine are considered food insecure, which means they don’t get the proper nutrition to sustain a healthy diet.

A recent survey showed that 56 percent of clients who use Good Shepherd’s network of food pantries reported having to choose between paying for heat and paying for food.

“It’s terrible that people have to make those kinds of decision,” Miale said.

The unusually cold weather this winter is only making matters worse for many families.

It’s been the coldest winter since 2002-03, according to National Weather Service data.

Demand for assistance paying heating bills is out-pacing previous years and threatening to wipe out funding. Some families have already used their allotment of heating aid and are being advised to stay with friends and family for the rest of the season.

No relief from the costly cold weather is in sight.

It reached a high of 19 degrees in Portland Thursday, 12 degrees below normal for the date. Temperatures are expected to remain below normal for most of the next seven days, despite a slight warm-up into the 30s on Saturday, according to the weather service forecast.

Even during a more mild year, advocates say, more Mainers face hunger when it gets cold.

Donna Yellen, chief program officer at Preble Street in Portland, said she sees increases every winter in the number of people who come to the food pantry and hot meal programs. On Thursday, the food pantry served 150 families – about 20 more families than in an average week.

Yellen said two people who waited in line Thursday brought heating bills to explain why they need help with food.

“When people struggle with poverty, it is always a decision of how to best use their resources. People pay rent and keep the heat on, but go without food,” she said. “People are in desperate places right now. It’s very, very sad.”

In the Brunswick area, the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program has seen a 23 percent increase in pantry visits in the past two years, said executive director Karen Parker. She said she often hears from people who come to the food pantry because they’ve used all their money for heat and other bills.

Parker said it can be difficult for programs like hers to get fresh produce to pantry clients.

“We do struggle in the winter with providing some of the fresh produce we do during the summer months,” she said. “(The Good Shepherd grant) will make a huge difference because it alleviates a couple of the challenges smaller agencies have, which is storage and access to fresh food.”

The majority of the Good Shepherd grant money will be used to purchase nutritious food, including fresh or lightly processed fruits and vegetables, cheese, other dairy products and frozen fish and meat. Good Shepherd will use some of the grant money to build a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage space at its Auburn warehouse to store root vegetables throughout the winter.

Good Shepherd also plans to increase deliveries to urban and rural communities and offer refrigeration grants to local food pantries.

Don Morrison, operations manager for Wayside Food Programs in Portland, said food pantries associated with Wayside started reporting spikes in the number of clients in November, including one that saw a jump in one month of more than 300 families seeking food.

“A lot of our clients are the working poor,” he said. “These are people who have jobs and have homes, but they’re just barely getting by. When that unexpected heating bill comes through, it’s difficult.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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