Maine has one of the highest rates of hunger even in the best of times. It is also one of the states most vulnerable to the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus.

Yet when it comes to the food aid program created as part of the federal government’s response to the pandemic, Maine is on its own.

The state will see almost nothing from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has hired private contractors to distribute fresh food to food banks, churches and other nonprofits.

In the first round of the $3 billion program, $1.2 billion was handed over to distributers, but just $46 million went to the Northeast region, which includes New York and New England, one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus, ProPublica reported last week.

No companies that distribute in Maine received funding, leaving the state’s already scrambling food aid organizations to fend for themselves.

The oversight doesn’t appear intentional, but a byproduct of moving quickly to get aid out — and of the decision to distribute the funds to the private contractors rather than food banks themselves. The USDA appears to have selected contractors based on the prices of their bids alone, failing to make sure that all areas of the country would be covered by someone in the program.

At least one Maine company applied. Native Maine Produce & Specialty Foods’ application was rejected, the company was told, because of a missing signature that the company maintains is on their completed application.

Meanwhile, some companies with little or no experience distributing food were awarded bids.

That leaves Maine and Alaska as the only states not served by the program.

It is a bad time for our state to be left out. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 14% of residents didn’t have reliable access to enough healthy food, the 12th-highest rate in the country.

Since then, more than 138,000 Mainers have applied for unemployment insurance, a historically high number that doesn’t even reflect the true financial losses experienced by many residents. And that’s before the true toll is felt from the loss of a regular summer tourist season, when so many businesses make the bulk of their earnings.

Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest food bank with more than 500 partners, said there has been a 35% increase in demand for aid, with the number of families served tripling in some spots. Food cupboards are seeing people they haven’t seen in a while, or previously at all.

At the same time that need is increasing, donations are way down, particularly for healthier, fresher foods. In a typical year, Good Shepherd spends about $1.5 million to buy food, in addition to all the donations it receives. However, the organization told the Press Herald it spent $1 million in one recent 10-day period. All told, the group believes it will need $6.3 million extra in funding this year to fill the gap by rising demand and fewer food donations.

The state can’t fill that massive gap on its own, even with the heroic work of food cupboards, volunteers and other supporters.

Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, has asked the USDA to reopen bids for the program so that Maine distributors can take part. If Maine’s exclusion was the result of bad luck and bureaucracy, they should have no trouble granting the request.

Hunger in Maine is bad and getting worse. If help is needed anywhere, it’s here.


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