BIDDEFORD — Hope Deforge carefully placed bags of food in her cart, then balanced a box of groceries across the top as a volunteer from the Biddeford Food Pantry offered her more squash and a frozen turkey. She eagerly accepted the squash but turned down the turkey because she’d picked one up the last time she was here.
For at least the next few days, Deforge won’t have to worry about how to scrape together enough money for groceries.
“It’s everything for us,” she said. “We’re not deciding if we’re going to pay rent or get a meal.”
Deforge, 20, works at a local restaurant and lives with her parents, who work at a convenience store. They live paycheck to paycheck, she said, and with higher prices at the grocery store, they find it increasingly difficult to cover their bills. Once a week, they go to the food pantry on Elm Street.
As prices at grocery stores continue to climb and Mainers brace for an expensive season heating their homes, more people are turning to the network of hundreds of food pantries and meal programs across the state for help. At several food pantries in southern Maine, the number of clients has doubled in recent months.
At the same time, pantries and programs that provide prepared meals are spending more for the food they need, even when they’re able to acquire it at discounted prices through the Good Shepherd Food Bank.
In Biddeford, the pantry has set records for clients served every month since May and director Don Bisson expects this to be its busiest year ever. Since last month alone, the number of people coming weekly to pick up boxes and bags of groceries has increased by 17%.
Last Tuesday, volunteers distributed food to 90 families – more than double the number they expect this time of year.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Bisson said. “There seems to be no letup and Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming.”
During her 15 years handling purchasing in the food industry, Preble Street food programs director Natalie Varrallo has never seen food prices so high.
This means Varrallo is constantly shifting course to deal with fragility in the supply chain and unanticipated spikes in prices. In the past year, she said, Preble Street has seen a 30% increase in food costs.
At the same time, Preble Street has doubled the output of food from its Food Security Hub in South Portland. It now distributes 40 or more boxes of groceries each day and serves around 2,000 prepared meals.
Varrallo focuses on using less expensive, seasonal produce and sourcing food from local farms. This summer, Preble Street received 50,000 pounds of tomatoes from Liberation Farm through a grant program.
“It requires us to be really flexible in terms of what we’re purchasing and preparing,” she said.
The Biddeford Food Pantry now spends $12,000 a month on food. That means $3,000 every week split between Good Shepherd and local grocery stores to fill the gaps – what they used to spend at each in a month.
Penni Robbins, director of the Bridgton Food Pantry, said working with local producers has allowed her to save money while providing high-quality food. The pantry now hands out beef from Rock Mountain Farm in Poland, which sells it to the pantry at a discount.
Food drives organized by Boy Scouts and other community groups also have helped relieve a bit of the pressure facing food programs, pantry directors say. That kind of generosity isn’t a surprise to Jen MacDonald, the community resources manager at Good Shepherd Food Bank.
“Communities in Maine are really resilient and supportive,” she said. “As we approach the holiday season, they come together and show their support.”
‘COME HERE FOR FOOD’
Winter typically is a busy time for the more than 600 food pantries and programs in Good Shepherd Food Bank’s statewide network.
“Once people have to start heating their homes, it’s a shift in where their resources are going,” MacDonald said.
That means some people have to make hard choices about which bills to pay and food often ends up at the bottom of the priority list.
“We’ve had some people that come in, especially seniors, saying ‘I never thought I’d be in this situation. Do I pay my rent or mortgage and have heat or do I have food?’ ” Robbins said. “Well, you can pay those and come here for food.”
Robbins started seeing more people walking through the pantry doors this summer and it hasn’t let up. The pantry now serves 190 to 210 families each week. Before, 80 or 90 families were considered a lot. Six to 10 new families sign up each week.
In Alfred, the York County Shelter Programs food pantry hands out 150 to 160 boxes on a busy day, many to people who are coming for the first time, said pantry coordinator Mike Ouellette. Before the pandemic, 70 boxes was high.
“The days of the stigma of coming to the food pantry are out the window,” he said. “People are coming and asking for food. There’s no hesitation.”
So far, the pantry has been able to keep up with the demand thanks to the food it buys at a discounted rate from Good Shepherd and food donations picked up regularly from local retailers. But things are starting to get tight, Ouellette said.
“Our numbers are still growing a little bit. I’m hoping if this is the peak, that we’ll be OK,” he said. “We can get by, but we can always use more.”
Michelle Byras is grateful for the variety of food and items she’s able to get from the pantry in Biddeford. With five adults and two children in her household, it can be hard to keep up when everything costs more. Her income from DoorDash “was just enough to survive this year,” she said.
“There’s certain times you just have to go without,” she said. “This place makes it so you don’t have to.”