Delaina Toothman, a volunteer of the Holy Family Church food pantry, talks about the work she does at the food pantry in Old Town on Jan. 5. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Good Shepherd Food Bank — the state’s largest hunger relief organization — saw an immediate surge in the demand for food assistance that was absolutely staggering when the coronavirus first hit Maine, President Kristen Miale said.

Now, even with the guarantee of a COVID-19 vaccine, local food relief services are preparing for that demand to surge again as winter deepens.

Demand for food usually increases in the winter months as families struggle to cover home heating costs and to cope with losses of seasonal jobs, Miale said. But other obstacles related to the pandemic — such as an unpredictable job market, the end of some emergency federal food assistance programs and a brief delay in Maine’s own unemployment benefit payouts — have intensified the normal demand.

By the end of 2020, Good Shepherd had stockpiled 50 percent more food than at the same time last year to meet the increased demand — which had risen by about 25 percent compared to 2019.

“We are buying way more food than we’ve ever purchased in the past,” Miale said.

More than half of the food Good Shepherd gives out is donated, with 28 percent coming from programs through the United States Department of Agriculture such as the Commodity Supplemental Meal and the Farmers to Families food box programs.

Normally, purchased food makes up about 10 percent of Good Shepherd’s total inventory. “We are concerned that we will need to continue purchasing food at elevated levels for at least another year,” Miale said.

To make matters worse, some federal protections that provided support through the pandemic, such as rental or food assistance programs, expired at the end of 2020, and for a short time, left people unsure of whether they would be renewed in the new year.

The most recent COVID-19 relief package contains additional funding for such protections, including unemployment benefits and more. The measure also includes an additional $13 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

On Tuesday night, the USDA also announced it had approved a fifth round of the Farmers to Families food box program. The latest renewal will allow the USDA to purchase $1.5 billion worth of food to distribute across the country.

Even before the last round of the program ended in 2020, it began facing trouble as money quickly ran out. In one round of distribution, Good Shepherd was getting approximately 350,000 meals from the program.

By December, that was reduced to 100,000 meals, Miale said. The program claims to have served 132.6 million food boxes as of Jan. 5.

While Good Shepherd has stockpiled more food to meet the rising demand due to the pandemic, it’s not a long-term solution.

“This network was not built to provide this level of support,” Miale said. “We were built to be an emergency provider of food when somebody hit a bad time … we were meant to be a stop-gap and that is not what this network is doing now.”

On a local level, people who were struggling to make ends meet long before the pandemic’s arrival are in worse straits now.

In Old Town, the number of people living below the poverty rate has been between 20 to 30 percent for the past few years. Now as people face job losses and other challenges, area food pantries are witnessing an influx of families seeking food who’ve never needed the help before.

Delaina Toothman, a volunteer of the Holy Family Church food pantry, said she saw 11 new families come to the pantry last month. “I’ve never been here before but I don’t know what else to do,” many told her.

Delaina Toothman, a volunteer of the Holy Family Church food pantry, talks about the work she does at the food pantry in Old Town on Jan. 5. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

One woman told Toothman about her struggles to find dependable work. She was laid off from her primary job, and when she got a temporary one to fill in, she was laid off again. Finally, she found another job that was at a new business, but it never opened due to the pandemic, putting her out of work again.

Natasha Fields has regularly heard similar struggles from those who pick up food from the St. Anne food pantry on the Penobscot Nation Reservation. Fields, who is the pantry director, said that people often talk about losing their food stamps or unemployment benefits and having trouble finding work during the pandemic.

While located on Indian Island, the pantry is open to anyone and serves people in Old Town and surrounding communities.

“All of the things that people have relied on for their lives are suddenly gone,” Toothman said.

In a U.S. Census Bureau survey of food sufficiency conducted between the end of November and early December, 13,400 Maine households with children reported often not having enough to eat.

The Holy Family Church food pantry in Old Town is pictured on Jan. 5. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Toothman said she anticipates the local demand for food to continue rising.

While food is the biggest need, Toothman also said that people should consider donating personal hygiene products like shampoos, soaps, toilet paper or other basic necessities that can be overlooked.

Jennifer Goodwin, a community resource coordinator for RSU 34, checks in on a regular basis with families who have trouble getting enough to eat.

Goodwin helps provide food for about 15 families weekly, but the need level changes often and sometimes she has more than 20 families asking for help. Right now, it feels busier than normal.

“I’ve got families that work three jobs just trying to make ends meet,” she said.