Among the most surprising symptoms of the COVID pandemic were the lines that formed outside charity food pantries, both around the country and here in Maine.

Businesses were closed, or operating at less than full capacity, and families living on the edge of poverty were losing work hours and wages. As the economy slowly crawled back, people in need had nowhere to turn.

One event in Augusta last year, a Farm to Families distribution of Maine produce and milk, saw a line of 125 vehicles waiting before the first box was handed out. But when the federal government’s COVID relief efforts included increased nutrition aid, the people distributing groceries saw an effect.

“We heard immediately from our partners that they were seeing a pullback in need because of (the emergency benefits). They were even checking in with people they hadn’t seen in a while to make sure they were OK,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. “They were hearing from people that because their (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits were increased, they were food-secure for the first time ever.”

The emergency aid programs were temporary, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made permanent changes to SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, which will take what we learned in the pandemic into the future.

Starting Oct. 1, food stamps recipients saw their biggest increase in benefits since the program was first rolled out in the 1960s.

The USDA has reworked some of the assumptions behind its Thrifty Meal Plan and recalculated benefits based on a more realistic view of the conditions that families face. The result is a permanent 27 percent increase in what the government will pay over pre-pandemic levels. For a single person, it’s the difference between trying to eat on $3.97 per day to $5.55.

As of August, 167,000 Maine people were receiving benefits, slightly more the the 164,000 people who were eligible for food stamps in February 2020, just before the pandemic.

Food insecurity was a problem in Maine before COVID, and food stamp eligibility gives  an incomplete picture of how many families don’t have enough to eat. Earning $50,000 a year may not be enough income for a family of four to have secure food and housing, but it’s still too much to qualify for any food stamp benefits at all.

The USDA projects that 11 percent of Mainers, roughly 140,000 people, lack food security, which is above the national average of 10.7 percent. Maine has the fifth highest rate of “very low food security,” with 31,000 households reporting that they regularly have to miss meals.

Maine has the highest rate of child hunger in New England, with one in five children experiencing food insecurity. A new state law that makes school meals available to all students at no cost should help make sure that food will get to more kids who need it.

The pandemic relief programs have shown that it’s possible to reduce the consequences of poverty that too many people had accepted as normal. Knowing how easy it is to make a difference, there is no reason to stop trying to make sure that everyone in Maine has enough to eat.


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