Don and Betty Morrell load their truck at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn on Thursday. The Morrells pick up food each week to hand out Fridays at Faith Food Pantry in Gardiner. Betty Morrell said while the number of people they assist has not increased due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number they deliver food to has tripled. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN – The state’s largest hunger relief organization is scrambling to keep up with soaring need while simultaneously overhauling the way it operates in order to keep workers, volunteers and the public safe.

“Our head is just barely above water,” Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank, said Thursday. To illustrate, she pointed out that in a typical year, the nonprofit spends about $1.5 million to buy food. In a 10-day period recently, Good Shepherd Food Bank has spent $1 million.

At that rate, the food bank could run out of food in a month, Miale said.

She said the basic problem is food donations are down sharply at the same time food banks across the state are seeing “a huge spike in need.”

Communities across the state are seeing requests for help rise anywhere from 25% to more than double the rate just a few weeks ago, Miale said, a scenario that demands more help from the federal government.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has pitched many households into sometimes dire situations, is the root cause of a problem that threatens to overwhelm food banks across the country.

It doesn’t help, Miale said, that Americans keep buying groceries at a feverish pace.

Rune Ravenwolf of the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn brings boxes of food to members of the Crossroads Community Church in Gray on Thursday. Annie Mayer, left, Abi Parker, center, and Phillip Tame, standing behind Mayer, pick up food weekly for the church food pantry. Parker said she has noticed some regulars not coming to the pantry since the coronavirus hit Maine and some new faces she suspects may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

She said the Maine-based Hannaford supermarket chain, traditionally a big donor of excess food, doesn’t have much to give because shoppers are snatching everything up daily as if it was the week before Christmas.

Miale said what’s needed is for people to stop hoarding and for national leadership to ensure a steady supply to those most in need across the country.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks, said in a prepared statement that “the COVID-19 crisis is driving more of our neighbors into food insecurity and putting a strain on food banks to provide more meals.”

“Never has the charitable food system faced such tremendous challenge, and we need all the resources we can get to help our neighbors during this terrible time,” she said.

For Good Shepherd, which supplies food to food banks, these “crazy times” have meant a reversal of a 40-year trend toward providing healthier, fresher food.

Miale said the organization pretty much overturned the way it operates in a week because it could no longer ship out large quantities of perishable food.

With local food banks often short of volunteers – many of their mainstays are vulnerable to COVID-19 and need to stay home – most have switched how they distribute food, Miale said.

They’re handing out boxes at drive-through operations or leaving them for people to pick up, she said, so they need “shelf-stable food,” not perishables that may not hold up.

At the same time, the availability of a lot of that type of food is down sharply, Miale said, because it’s the same stuff customers are buying in the stores to stock shelves at home that must, in some cases, be groaning under the weight.

She said she initially thought people would slow their purchases, but so far she isn’t seeing much evidence that the panic is diminishing.

Meanwhile, Good Shepherd is struggling to keep up at its own facilities with workers out and most volunteers not allowed inside. She said she’s been trying to hire more experienced warehouse hands to help, but they’re in short supply.

One positive development, Miale said, is that L.L.Bean has stepped in to provide a tremendous boost by having its workers pack food into household-size boxes at its warehouse.

“That’s a huge help for us,” she said, because this week, the Freeport-based retailer boxed up 5,500 allotments of food and next week expects to provide 6,000 boxes for distribution, Miale said.

“We’re going to create them as fast as we can,” she said.

Each box contains enough for 34 meals in a month, along with some potatoes and apples, Miale said. It’s not enough to keep a household fed, she said, but it is a good supplement for many who have access to some groceries from government aid or their own resources.

The problem is that so much of the food has to be purchased, often in an open market where grocery stores are also bidding for the same products, Miale said.

That’s why she’d like to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture step in to oversee the food distribution network and make sure those who are struggling most are able to get the food they need.

As it is, despite financial help from many companies and individuals, Good Shepherd could run out of food in about a month if nothing changes, she said.

“That could happen,” Miale said, but she is “not ready to hit the panic button” yet because the situation Good Shepherd is in matches that of many similar charities across the land.

Feeding America surveyed its members recently and found that 37% of them are facing “an immediate critical funding shortfall” and most of the rest are dealing with increased demand and shrinking donations.

“This is every food bank in America,” Miale said.

“I want the USDA to hear we’re running out of food. Please do something,” she said.


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