Rotary members in Winthrop will work Saturday to end hunger in fitting fashion — by having a feast.
The Winthrop Area Rotary Foundation, the non-profit branch of the Winthrop Area Rotary Club, has organized the third annual Family Barbecue & Gumbo Festival to End Hunger to help meet the growing number of people who aren’t able to afford to feed themselves and their families.
Organizers say there’s been a significant increase in the number of people seeking help each month. At the local food pantry, the need has grown from 40 families a month in 2011 to 110 families a month in 2014, said JoEllen Cottrell, executive director of the Winthrop Food Pantry.
There are a total of 300 families on the food pantry’s roster, about 90 percent of whom live in Winthrop.
“Last week in one day we served 39 families,” Cottrell said. “Our numbers have tripled since I came on.”
Craig Hickman, chairman of the Rotary Foundation, said all the money from Saturday’s fundraiser will go toward hunger relief. Hickman, a Democratic state lawmaker, said the need has never been greater.
“We gauge hunger by people that show up to get food,” Hickman said this week as he smoked meat outside his Annabessacook Farm in preparation for the barbecue. “We’ve seen the numbers rise of people who are accessing these services.”
Hickman, who is on the board of directors of the Winthrop Hot Meals Kitchen at St. Francis Parish Hall on Route 133, said the kitchen has been “swamped” for the meals it serves on Mondays and Thursdays. The soup kitchen serves anyone, regardless of where they live. Hickman said people come from across the region, including Greene and Leeds to the west, Augusta to the east.
“We didn’t used to serve in the summer at all, but we felt we had to,” Hickman said. “Pretty much, all the towns that surround here, people use the soup kitchen.”
Not only are there more people, but the circumstances of those who need food are changing. The need has expanded beyond those who don’t have jobs. Hickman said many of those who use the Winthrop Food Pantry and the soup kitchen now have jobs that do not pay enough to cover their bills and buy their food.
“They need help making ends meet,” Hickman said. “It’s seniors and children; even the number of veterans is rising.”
NATIONAL NUMBER GROW
At the food pantry, between one and five new families sign up every week, Cottrell said. Families can return once a month. Some families only come back a couple times a year, when they are in a bind, and others need help every month.
“It’s continuing to grow,” Cottrell said. “I keep thinking it will stop, but it hasn’t. It’s an age-old problem. There just seems to be more of it.”
Earlier this year, a food pantry in East Winthrop closed after Hannaford supermarkets, which supplied much of the food, instituted a new policy that it would distribute food only to pantries affiliated with the Good Shepherd Food Bank. At the time, more than than 100 local families were using the pantry run by the East Winthrop Baptist Church.
Cottrell helped establish a peer group of food pantry directors, which has attracted about 28 people who work in pantries throughout the region. The stories she hears when they get together four times a year often reflect what Cottrell has experienced in Winthrop, even if the increase is not always as dramatic.
“The trend is all food pantries are growing,” she said. “They’ve all seen an increase in size. The numbers are up nationwide. It’s not just the state of Maine.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent report, released in September, most families have consistent, dependable access to food, but a minority of Americans experience food insecurity at times during the year, meaning that their access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money or other resources. The percentage of households that experienced some form of food insecurity increased from about 11 percent in 2006 to about 15 percent in 2008 and has remained relatively unchanged since.
According to the USDA, about 17.6 million households in the U.S., which is about 14.5 percent of all households, were food insecure in 2012. About 7 million households, or 5.7 percent, experienced very low food security, meaning some members had to eat less and normal eating patterns were disrupted because of limited resources.
About 10 percent of households with children suffered food insecurity in 2012, meaning there were 3.9 million households that were unable, at times, to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.
Researchers found rates of food insecurity were much higher than the national average in homes where the income is at or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men and black or Hispanic households. Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas than suburban and exurban areas around large cities.
FUN AND AWARENESS
Cottrell said she hopes everyone who attends the barbecue has fun, and she hopes the event raises lots of money, but it’s equally important that people be aware what’s going on.
“They have lofty goals that hopefully will be accomplished,” Cottrell said.
Those goals, beyond funding the mission of the food pantry and soup kitchen, include developing a Winthrop Area Food and Community Center that will be used for education in nutrition and growing food, community gardens, and a community cafe that serves evening meals.
“It will be a place where people from all walks of life can come together to learn how to grow, prepare, process and preserve nutritious food for themselves and their families,” Hickman said. “While we must continue to address emergency food needs in our region, we must also build long-term resources to support food security and local nutrition education. We want to feed ourselves in this community without having food come in from anywhere else. We have to give people the tools to feed themselves.”
Hickman is expecting 400 people to attend the barbecue. Tickets, which will be available at the event, are $10 per person or $35 per family. People have urged Hickman to increase the ticket price, hoping to raise more money, but he has resisted the urge. Hickman said an aggressive push to find sponsors, which includes a number of other area businesses, has already covered expenses.
“We don’t want to exclude or discourage people from coming,” Hickman said, noting that people are free to make an additional donation if they desire.
“Good food and good fun for a good cause. You don’t want to miss it.”
The barbecue is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on the Rambler football field behind Winthrop Grade School.
Besides food, and plenty of it, the family event will include live music by Ricky Dosedlo, a bounce house and fireworks.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642