Naomi Schalit on Hunger in Maine

Naomi Schalit on Hunger in Maine

For those of you who missed last month’s opening of Art for Hunger at the Harlow, here is the text of Naomi Schalit’s insightful speech on the issue of hunger in Maine.

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“The good people who run Maine’s food pantries and soup kitchens say they’re seeing far too many new faces these days.

Those faces belong to hungry people. They’re families and individuals who, at a time of high energy and food prices, can no longer make ends meet. And while food pantries will hold their doors open to almost anyone who shows up, their ability to fill the growing need for food in Maine is being severely tested.

In 2007, when I worked as the opinion page editor at the KJ and Sentinel, our publisher wanted to do an important, investigative-type series that would open Mainers’ eyes about an issue in our communities. The three members of the editorial board spent weeks batting around ideas from the high cost of energy to the propensity of the state supreme court to affirm most lower court decisions – and we decided to focus on hunger.

We decided to focus on it in part because I had learned that at the time, it turned  out that Maine was experiencing the fastest growth rate of hungry people in the country. That was something policymakers didn’t know, the public didn’t know – but food pantry staff sure knew something was up. And that was BEFORE the recession hit.

I believe that the series, which I wrote and the publisher, John Christie (who is now my husband) edited, opened people’s eyes about hunger in Maine and how it was all around us. The kid who comes home from school with your son or daughter and keeps on asking for seconds and thirds of the snacks you offer? Hungry. The fact that the lunch bag you put in the office fridge keeps disappearing? Someone’s hungry. Your friend the elementary school teacher probably has an item on her budget you weren’t aware of: Paying to feed hungry students nutritious snacks. Or even paying to buy them breakfast or lunch.

There was lots of response, some of it good and constructive, some of it not so much. People started talking about hunger. Students did food drives. The governor’s wife proposed a hunger summit, though in the end, the summit fizzled. Some very socially prominent people organized a dinner catered by famous Maine chefs to raise money for the hungry. They did not, it seems, appreciate the irony in this at all. Libby Mitchell decided that she was going to push yet again for expansion of the school breakfast program, and she managed to get the Legislature to pass it, which was a monumental task that had not been accomplished in several earlier attempts.

And good people like you wanted to do something then, and want to do something now. Here’s the thing I learned when I wrote the series, and which still holds now: The answer to hunger in Maine is not for the public to donate more cans of food from their kitchen shelves. Likewise, fundraising events help publicize the problem, but they’re expensive to produce and offer only a one-time fix. While charity is a wonderful thing, charity can’t solve the problem of hunger. If it could, we wouldn’t have a growing hunger problem.

Hunger, instead, will be solved by a variety of long-term measures to increase the economic status of Maine’s workers, retirees, veterans, children and families. Those measures include better education, better health care and better jobs in a more robust Maine economy.

Honestly, it’s not sexy and doesn’t offer nearly the good feeling that handing a bag of food to a hungry person might, but probably the best way to stem hunger in this state would be to provide free and reduced-price school breakfast to the entire population of Maine children who are eligible for the program. Given the increased hunger in the state, the school breakfast program is one of the quickest and easiest ways to get more food to more people.

And those of you who want to do something about hunger need to get assertive. Go around to the state’s food pantries and you’ll find two kinds of nice people — those who give out the food and those who get the food. Both sides of this act of charity find it hard to be anything other than grateful for the good that’s being done.

Yet it would not be uncharitable if these people moved their battle to city hall, state capitals and Washington. Hunger is growing. Food pantries are strained to their limits. Mainers can’t afford to heat their homes, gas up their cars, pay for their prescriptions — and eat. This is not a private problem to be solved by private charity.

“What do you propose to do about hunger?” should be a standard question for every candidate. But was that question anywhere to be found in the dozens of debates held for the gubernatorial candidates this year?”

Naomi Schalit
Executive Director and Senior Reporter
Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
PO Box 284
Hallowell, ME  04347
207-720-1643
www.pinetreewatchdog.org

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