A volunteer grabs bags of food for drive-thru service at the Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard on Friday. Credit: Kevin Bennett | Maine Public

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This story is part of Maine Public’s series Deep Dive: Coronavirus.

Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, more than 13 percent of Maine households struggled with food insecurity — the highest rate of hunger in New England and the 12th highest in the country. But with so many people out of work, that number is projected to grow to 18 percent.

Local food pantries are struggling to keep up with what the state’s largest hunger relief organization calls an “unprecedented” need for help.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

In Piscataquis County, one of the poorest in Maine, food is flying off the shelves of the Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard. On a recent day, cars started arriving an hour ahead of the scheduled grocery pickup. By 10 a.m., the line stretched down a long driveway and onto the street.

Intake manager Deb Loguercio greeted each person as a small group of volunteers loaded a bag of groceries and a bag of fresh potatoes into their trunks.

“This way I get to talk with them one-on-one while we’re waiting for the food,” she said. “And you get a chance to see what’s going on in their life. I had one lady yesterday that came in for commodities and was going through a rough time. I got a chance to pray with her. I put my hand on her even though we’re not supposed to. People need to have that personal touch, especially if they’re going through a rough time.”

Loguercio also passed out a recipe for ham and split pea soup — 200 hams have been donated by Herring Brothers Meats in the nearby town of Guilford.

A few months ago the food cupboard was serving about 75 families who could come inside the pantry and select a grocery cart full of meat, fresh produce and frozen and canned goods two times a month. Now, it’s drive-thru distribution, and there’s nothing perishable.

An extra pick-up day has been added to the calendar, but there’s only enough food to pass out one bag of groceries and a few extra items at a time.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, there are about 120 families regularly showing up.

“Mostly people tell us that one or more people in their family are out of work now,” said Karen King, operations manager for the food cupboard.

King volunteers more than 25 hours a week on top of her regular, part-time job at the local hospital.

“Unemployment has been difficult to get to and the grocery stores sometimes don’t have the things that people need at this time, and I think some people are afraid to go out,” she said.

“And it’s very stressful. You don’t even realize how the stress is impacting you,” said Sandra, who declined to give her last name.

Sandra said her need for the food cupboard has increased in the last few months, but she said she’s more concerned about some of her neighbors.

“Opportunities are disappearing for people, and it’s leaving poor people all across the country very insecure. It’s frightening,” she said.

Beth Wetmore of Dover-Foxcroft and her sister were the first ones in line. She has five kids and said she has been finding it difficult to keep food in the house.

“I’m disabled, but my husband lost hours, so his income’s gone down. My daughter’s trying to find work but no luck yet,” she said.

Wetmore said she’s grateful for the groceries and also the soap, handmade face masks and children’s books that are also being handed out.

Piscataquis County has a poverty rate of about 18 percent, according to the U.S census, and families aren’t the only ones who have a hard time accessing food. One in 4 residents is over the age of 65. Wesley Parkman, 80, said he and his wife would be unable to get by without the food cupboard.

“We’d be going hungry without it. I’m on social security and that’s all I got for an income. Anything we can eat we’re happy to have,” he said.

[Maine will miss out on $3 billion food program aimed at helping food pantries]

Parkman has been relying on the food cupboard for about a year. But around the state, hundreds of food pantries are seeing people that they have never seen before. And like the Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard, they have had to reduce the amount they can distribute.

“We’re not able to give as much. We’re running out of food much quicker,” said Whitney Parrish of the Health Equity Alliance, which serves the Bangor area and Down East Maine. “We have turned to our community for donations, but because of the tremendous uptick in folks coming in, we’re really struggling like many food pantries in Maine.”

Despite generous community support, some food pantries are also having to spend more money.

“I’m anticipating about a 20 percent increase to our budget this year, and a 40 percent increase in food costs, so we’re having to spend more money than we’ve ever spent before for just regular items that we used to be able to get through Good Shepherd,” said Bob Moore, the director of the Augusta Food Bank.

Good Shepherd Food Bank is the state’s largest hunger relief organization, which partners with supermarkets and others to provide food to local pantries, meal sites and schools. When the pandemic struck in March, it disrupted the entire distribution system.

“When it first hit we definitely saw almost an immediate decline in food donations from the retail stores,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd.

Miale said about 40 percent of the food that’s distributed comes from big supermarkets, which are still struggling to keep some shelves stocked. So she said her organization also had to start purchasing food to meet the demands of its partners.

“We’ve allocated about $4 million over the past two months to buy food. Normally, we buy about $1.5 million over the course of an entire year. So to spend $4 million in two months is just astronomical,” she said.

Even with the state reopening and some people going back to work, food insecurity in Maine is projected to grow, and Good Shepherd expects to spend $6.5 million by the end of August.

“We have been incredibly blessed by the generosity of Mainers and we have been definitely seeing a significant increase in donations. We’re trying now to balance — do we just buy as much food as we can right now or what do we need to plan for to respond to the need three months from now, six months from now, 12 months from now?” Miale said.

Back at the Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard, King and the other volunteers send another patron on her way. No matter what happens, King said she wants all Mainers to know that she and the others are here to help anyone who needs it.

“No matter the circumstances, if they’re temporary or they’re gonna be long term, you know we’re all here. The food we get is for people in Maine, so come and get it,” she said.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.