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Piscataquis County may not be at the epicenter of the Maine battle against the COVID-19 pandemic – on Sunday there was only one positive test among its 16,800 residents.
That does not mean the impact of coronavirus stops on the county line, including food insecurity that comes with rapidly growing unemployment across the state.
When Karen King helped distribute food at Dover-Foxcroft Food Cupboard in January, she and her staff served 85 families.
When COVID-19 and its mandate lived in related homes and layoffs arrived in mid-March, that number skyrocketed to 140 and would remain almost the same in early April unless the distribution day came right after heavy snow turned off power – as well as family refrigerators and freezers – in part large territory.
For King, the operations manager of a food cabinet, the challenge is not to provide enough food to meet increasing demand, but to be able to get enough food in large quantities from his main source.
“It’s a little different from before, because I can usually order and if we serve one hundred on average I can get a hundred something,” he said. “Now the inventory is very uncertain.”
The challenge will not change in the coming weeks, making King and Erin Callaway always planning ahead.
“We know people are on leave or terminated altogether or have lost their jobs completely,” said Callaway, executive director of the Piscataquis Regional Food Center, a subsidiary of Good Shepherd Food Bank whose distribution area includes a food cabinet in Dover-Foxcroft, Dexter, Greenville , Milo and Sangerville. “Maybe they are able to manage pretty well now, but it will take time to recover from that.
“We will see a surge in needs when people really start to feel the impact of losing that income.”
The threat of food insecurity is also felt higher in the supply chain, because food banks that provide many local cabinets from their inventory must compete with retail stores that are trying to meet the frenzied consumer demand fostered by coronavirus fears.
“I think it has something to do with it,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “Hannaford has always been our biggest supporter – they are amazing through this – and what they say is that the supply chain is meant to deal with regular purchase volumes and if people only make regular purchases they will all be fine.
“Instead they say every day shopping [now] like Christmas Sunday again, “he said.
Good Shepherd Food Bank is the largest hunger relief organization in the state, distributing food from its centers in Auburn and Hampden to more than 450 partner institutions in Maine.
Last year it distributed more than 26 million meals to families, children and needy seniors throughout the state, but the task has grown far more difficult – and expensive – so far this year.
Good Shepherd usually buys around $ 1.5 million in food for a full year, Miale said, but in the midst of the current health and economic crisis, he has spent nearly $ 2 million in the past two weeks alone.
“This is very challenging,” he said. “Usually 70 percent of the food we distribute is donated food that comes mainly from retailers, but the channel is down about 50 percent and the most challenging is getting ‘stable on the shelf’ food.
“People want pasta, rice, cereal, spaghetti sauce, all the things that are hard to get by anyone at the grocery store today,” he added. “The supply chain is stuck and we really feel the impact.”
Such frustration does not stem from lack of effort.
“Mainers has been very generous with the food bank in the last few weeks, but now we find that even though we have money, we can’t even buy food,” Miale said. “We have a number of orders out – many of which will not arrive until late May and June. We have three loads that were canceled this week, so we estimate that we will run out of stable food on the shelves next week. “
Miale said part of the solution might come from producers’ efforts to adapt to current shopping parties.
“We have been told that they have adjusted and we hope we will start to see the effects of that with them actually increasing production,” he said. “They do things like rule out some additional products and focus on core staples. We hope we will start to see that effect but now it is very challenging. “
Miale supported a letter sent by Governor Janet Mills to US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week urging the USDA to coordinate national strategies to address gaps in the supply chain.
“What we really want to see is for the USDA to participate and proactively get food for the charity food network,” he said. “We have to have enough food to get around. We just need people to stop the hoarding and we need to make sure the charity food network is able to secure what we need.
“Usually we wait to see it flowing out and we get leftovers, but when there’s no leftovers, then we need to find other ways to get food.”
Miale said the survey had indicated an increase in Mainer access to food pantry between 10 and 100 percent since the arrival of coronavirus, with a special increase in Cumberland County, the most populous county in the state.
“We are really seeing a surge in demand and when we get a survey this week, I feel the numbers will be even higher,” he said.
Miale added that Good Shepherd Food Bank continues to benefit from public contributions in its efforts to address the problem of food insecurity, including some donations related to the stimulus it received this week.
“Government checks are starting to be issued, and we are receiving dozens of donations – many of them $ 1,200 – from people who say they don’t need them and that others need more,” he said. “That says something.”
Uncertainty about when the pandemic and economic downturn might subside makes the Maine food charity community worry that the end of the crisis may not be imminent.
“We do our best to get ready for it and to help our community partners, food cabinets around the county and in Dexter, get ready,” Callaway said.
“And if we’re very lucky that doesn’t happen, well, we’re still ready.”