AUGUSTA — Donations to the Augusta Food Bank are in a downward spiral, at the same time the nonprofit organization is feeding more people than it ever has.
For the first month of this year, the food bank operated at a net loss of almost $2,000. And its annual fundraising letter campaign, which 10 years ago pulled in some $20,000 to help run the food bank, brought in $7,500 this year, which is about $2,000 less than it brought in last year, and $6,000 less than it garnered in 2011.
“Our annual appeal letter didn’t get the response we’ve gotten before,” said Abigail Perry, the food bank’s director. “It’s very disconcerting to see that fall. It’s going to get harder and harder to do what we do. One of our big challenges is awareness, and getting the word out about this is a problem in this area.”
Meanwhile, in 2013 the food bank fed more people and families than it has since it opened in 1981.
It provided food for 208,000 meals last year, a 6.4 percent increase over the prior year, Perry said, noting that the organization has about 75 volunteers, some whom have been volunteering for 20 years or more. The food bank averages 365 visits a month. In 2013, it fed an estimated 10,000 people, almost 3,000 of them children.
In the first month of the new year, the food bank operated at a net loss of just under $2,000. While the food bank had enough reserve money left from the previous year to cover that loss, a trend of revenues not meeting expenses is not a sustainable long-term model for a business or nonprofit organization.
Perry said the organization, if revenues don’t increase, has enough money to continue paying its operating expenses for six to eight months. But that doesn’t include money to cover any emergencies that may arise, should something like the food bank’s heavily used van, or a commercial freezer, happen to break down and need a costly repair.
The food bank’s annual budget is about $100,000, which covers Perry’s salary, rental space, food and a van.
NEED UP IN WATERVILLE
Other central Maine food banks also report the need for the food they provide is up, though most officials of other area food banks aren’t reporting the same drop in revenues seen in Augusta.
“The need has gone up rather dramatically,” said Dave Dawson, president of the Greater Waterville Area Food Bank. “In 2012-2013, requests for food went up 25 percent, which is a large increase for us. Out of the past 20 years, last year was definitely our busiest. We’re not operating at a loss. Our donations are definitely down a little bit, but not to the point we’re in crisis. But it’s definitely a concern.”
The Waterville food bank, housed in donated space at the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church, received two “exceptional” donations last year, which Dawson doesn’t anticipate will be repeated. Other than those two donations, Waterville has seen a slight drop in donations in recent years, Dawson said.
He speculated the economy and high heating costs with the cold weather are likely major factors in the increased demand for the most basic of necessities — food.
Last year the Waterville organization received 5,300 requests for food, up from about 4,200 the year prior.
“We’ve seen a lot of new clients this year we haven’t seen before, so something is having an impact,” Dawson said. “I think people are making some tough choices.”
HARD TO ACCEPT HELP
Among the Augusta Food Bank’s at least occasional users is Amy Blasingim, who works at Target and recently picked up a second job at Walgreens, where she hasn’t started yet. She lives with her husband, who can’t work because of a disability.
“I’m trying to work in retail and support two of us, which isn’t working out that well,” Blasingim said while walking along Western Avenue recently, something she does often because the couple can’t afford a car, so she walks back and forth to work, and to the food bank. “I make too much to get food stamps. And if I ask to cut back my hours at work so I can get food stamps, then I couldn’t make my rent. If it weren’t for the food bank, we’d just go without certain things. We already don’t eat anywhere near the way we should eat, simply because we can’t afford it. If we didn’t have the food bank, my husband and I wouldn’t really have any fruits and vegetables, because we rely on the food bank to get those.”
Her husband gets about $189 a month in food stamps, which helps, but doesn’t go very far.
Blasingim said it’s frustrating to see people use the cash portion of their state welfare benefits buying electronic items and other non-essentials, while she walks back and forth to work.
Perry said last year 78 percent of the Augusta Food Bank’s clients received food stamps and 23 percent had paying jobs.
In 2013, 500 new households applied for assistance, continuing a trend of people using the food bank who’ve never had to come there before.
“Those are some of the most humbling conversations we have here,” Perry said. “When people say, âI don’t want to be here. I just need food.'”
That is how Susan Walker felt when, after losing her job several years ago, someone suggested she go to the food bank to help feed her now-adult kids.
“I was reluctant to come, it made me feel like I couldn’t support myself, but I did what I needed to do at the time, because I had kids at home,” said Walker, who passed by the food bank Thursday on her way to donate several large bags of clothing from a family member to Addie’s Attic, a clothing bank also located in the same building. “It’s a great place to come if you’re down and out and don’t have a lot of money. It’s better to give something, it feels a lot better to be on that end of it. But sometimes, you have to receive.”
Perry said both monetary and food donations to the Augusta Food Bank are down. She’s not entirely sure why, but suspects it’s because the economy is still struggling in central Maine, and people’s costs, particularly for heating, continue to rise.
“People just don’t have it to give,” she said.
The Augusta Food Bank serves residents of Augusta and Manchester.
In Winthrop, JoEllen Cottrell, executive director of the Winthrop Food Pantry, which operates out of rented space at 25 High St., said they’re signing up new families every week.
The Winthrop volunteer-run group provides food to about 100 families a month, up from 90 last year, and only about 40 in 2010.
“Every year the need is creeping up and we don’t see it improving,” Cottrell said. “But we’re doing OK. The people of the communities of Winthrop and Wayne (the food bank’s service area) have been very generous.”
The Hallowell Food Bank, which gives out food from the basement of the town fire station, is also doing OK, according to director Jack Walsh.
He said they’re giving food to about 30 families a month, which he believes is about the same number they gave to last year. He said local residents and businesses have been very generous to the all-volunteer food bank.
MULTIPLE AUGUSTA SITES
Perry said the Augusta Food Bank’s location, or, more accurately, locations, add to its challenges.
It distributes food every day Monday to Thursday in St. Mark’s parish hall, but the church also uses the hall, so every Thursday, they have to move everything out. They have a 3,000 square foot warehouse in the basement of the Aubuchon Hardware building off Bangor Street where they store food, and also store food and other items for its Kids Packs program, which distributes bags of food to students during school vacation weeks, in a room at South Parish Congregational Church.
Perry said the multiple locations and need to move food between all three is inefficient and not a good use of her, or volunteers’ time. She said sometimes a food item will be handled eight times before going out to a client.
The Augusta organization also used to be able to count on help loading food into the food bank from prisoners of the former Pre-Release Center in Hallowell, but not anymore, because the center closed and those prisoners have been relocated.
Perry said the food bank’s board of directors has had ongoing discussions about moving out of the three locations so the food bank is all under one roof, and can be more efficient. But no money is currently available to build a new food bank, or to buy and convert an existing building into a food bank.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647[email protected]