SOUTH PORTLAND — Demand is up 20 to 50 percent from a year ago at Maine’s soup kitchens, food pantries and other facilities that provide free food through the Good Shepherd Food-Bank.

Although cash donations to the food distribution network have increased, the amount of food collected from supermarkets and other food suppliers remains flat.

“Some pantries are having to turn away people,” said Christine Force, vice president of fund development at the food bank.

That is why Force and another half-dozen volunteers, including members of the Junior League of Portland, spent Saturday standing in a chilly parking lot at the Maine Mall collecting the bags and boxes of food dropped off by a steady stream of donors.

The food bank, the largest hunger relief organization in the state, and other charitable agencies are scrambling to meet escalating demand in the face of the struggling economy.

Mainers are not big charitable givers in the best of times, ranking in the bottom five states in per capita giving based on income tax returns. Charitable giving is tied to religious service attendance. New England and Maine have lower religious service attendance than other areas of the country, said Robert Demont of Demont Associates, a Portland nonprofit consulting business.

As the economic doldrums enter their fourth year, Maine’s charitable groups have adapted to a reduced giving climate. Demont said nonprofits have cut the fat in their own operations to meet demand for their services.

Janet Henry, president of the Maine Philanthropy Center, said fundraisers are also collaborating to reach their goals. An example is the Environmental Funders Network, which has pooled its dollars to give to groups that protect the state’s environment.

Demont said giving to environmental causes has remained strong throughout the recession. Mainers also come through with donations for basic necessities, such as food, shelter and heating help, Demont said.

This year, 500 volunteer gardeners raised and donated more than 140 tons of produce worth $473,000 to 114 food pantries through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Harvest for Hunger program.

Four or five years ago, Mainers were more willing to donate to help people in foreign countries, said Demont. Today, Mainers want to donate to causes that benefit people in their own communities.

Demont pointed to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, where five years ago Demont’s research showed the community would support a $1.25 million fundraiser. This year, the homeless shelter kicked off a $2.7 million campaign after research concluded the community would support that amount.

Demont said strong leadership can also help charitable efforts in a down economy, such as the recently concluded effort to raise almost $9 million for a new Boothbay Region YMCA and the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, a group that is more than midway toward its goal of raising $4 million to repair the famous instrument.

“There is an emphasis on trying to sustain what you have,” said Demont.

The challenge for organizations that feed the hungry is to keep donations flowing, say fundraisers. In Maine, 15 percent of all households do not have enough food, said Clara McConnell, communications manager at Good Shepherd, which last year raised $4 million in cash donations and distributed 12 million pounds of food to 600 partner agencies.

McConnell said those who missed the food drop-off Saturday can still donate to the holiday food drive. She said the food bank can distribute $8 of food for every $1 in cash donations.

On Saturday, Scarborough residents Steve Jury and his daughter, Cameron, 11, were among those dropping by with a box of donated food. It was their second food drop of the day — they also donated food to the Wentworth School in Scarborough.

“My wife sent us over,” said Jury.

Allen and Ruth Small drove over from Portland.

“We heard about it on the radio and then went shopping,” said Ruth Small.

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