LEWISTON — Terri Hutchinson's engagement ring has spent more time in the Lewiston Pawn Shop than it has on her finger.
The 27-year-old Auburn wife and mother visits food pantries. Clips coupons. Rations her food stamps. But when all else fails and her family needs food, the ring goes.
"Food banks are only open on certain days and at certain times, and without a vehicle it was difficult to get to them at times, especially during the winter," Hutchinson said. "If I missed my chance and could not wait until they were open again, I would have to make a trip to the pawn shop."
And when there still isn't enough food? She and her husband, both unemployed, go hungry so their 7-year-old son won't.
"If it weren't for food stamps and food pantries, we wouldn't have much, if any, food for ourselves," she said. "We've always made sure that our son has food, no matter what that entailed."
Her family isn't alone.
Just over 15 percent of Maine households weren't able to put adequate food on the table at times during the past year, according to the latest survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's up from about 9 percent a decade ago. The number of food supplement — formerly known as food stamps — cases has more than doubled in the past 10 years, from about 53,000 in August 2001 to more than 132,000 in August 2011. Androscoggin County cases alone have jumped 52 percent since 2008.
Across the state, food pantries, soup kitchens and charity groups report more people are in need of something to eat.
"They live in your neighborhood," said Rick Small, executive director of the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Auburn. "They still have the house; they have to. And they still have the car because they work. The kids have to go to school. Everything might look just fine, but they're certainly not coming next door to your house to tell you how bad things are. Not most Mainers."
Hunger in Maine is a problem that's bad and getting worse as the economy continues to flag, experts say.
And so far, real, long-lasting solutions are few.
'A new face every week'
While food pantries, charities and families without food use the word "hunger" to describe what's going on, the USDA uses the term "food insecurity." It's generally used to describe people who don't know where their next real meal is coming from or who don't know how they're going to get food the next day.
At first glance, Maine's food insecurity seems to have improved.
The USDA gauges insecurity by looking at three-year averages. In 2009, the USDA ranked Maine 9th worst in the country for food insecurity and 2nd worst for "very low food security," the most severe, chronic condition involving hunger. In 2010, Maine improved in the rankings, to 13th place for food insecurity and 6th for very low food security.
But Maine's numbers haven't actually gotten better. Other states' rankings just got worse faster.
The USDA's 2009 report said 14.8 percent of Maine households were food insecure. In 2010, as Maine's ranking improved, its percentage of food-insecure households rose to 15.4.
That means about 200,000 people in Maine — about one in six — are living with hunger.
Erin Reed, volunteer and development coordinator for the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston, sees some of those who are hungry: men, women, children, families, the elderly. The center helps feed 80 to 100 people a day through a soup kitchen it runs with help from the Salvation Army, and feeds 200 to 250 families through its Thursday food pantry.
"There's always a new face every week," Reed said.
Each Wednesday, a day before the food pantry opens, Reed and a band of volunteers form a ragtag caravan to the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, where they cram their vans, SUVs and cars with whatever food the Auburn food bank will give them. When they can't possibly squeeze in another box of lettuce or jar of tomato sauce, they'll put it back, but they hate to let anything go.
They head back to Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston with 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of food to give out the next day.
"Within four hours, it's gone," Reed said.
Dozens of other pantries, meal programs and food projects exist throughout the area, some right down the street from Trinity. But while the help is out there, it's getting more difficult for those groups to keep up with demand.
"I can tell you that it's increased dramatically," said Small of Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which last year distributed 12 million pounds of food through 600 food pantries, soup kitchens and agencies. "(It) has steadily increased for at least the last four (years), and I think this past year that increase has taken a steeper curve."
Experts blame the growing need primarily on the poor economy. State statistics back them up. Between 2005 and 2007, Maine added slightly more than 2,100 new food supplement cases. Between 2008 and 2010, when the economy took a downturn, it added nearly 29,700 new cases.
"You get one pink slip and then you get one medical problem and then you're in a lot of trouble," said Clara McConnell, communications manager for Good Shepherd.
But they say hunger — or food insecurity — means more than lacking money to eat. It means lacking money to eat right.
A gallon of low-fat milk costs $3.60 or more, but a 2-liter bottle of soda costs $1.50 or less. A simple, homemade salad can cost $4 or so, but a package of instant noodles costs less than 25 cents.
Hunger is, ironically, one reason Maine has an obesity problem, experts say. The foods that are cheap and plentiful are also the ones highly processed and containing a lot of carbohydrates, sugar and corn syrup.
"People don't have a lot of money, and when push comes to shove, you're going to get stuff that fills your kids' stomachs," said Reed of Trinity Jubilee. "You're going to get rice and pasta. As much as you might like to make them a salad or something, that's not going to keep them full for as long as rice will. When we do our pantry, we give out almost entirely produce. People love it. As far as I know, it could be the one time a week that they have access to it."
Hutchinson knows what it's like to have to choose between foods because of cost — or to choose not to eat at all.
Her husband Derek, a roofer, was injured on the job several years ago. The resulting back injury and a subsequent seizure disorder have made him unable to work. Hutchinson has severe anxiety, depression and chronic pain from fibromyalgia. Although she's looked for work, she's been unable to find a job that she could manage.
The family survives on her disability checks (Derek has applied for disability but has not been approved) and the $444 in food supplement they get through the state every month. Hutchinson has become an expert on feeding a family of three cheaply: participating in coupon exchanges; using her food supplement money to buy meat in cheap, bulk packages and freezing it so it will last as long as possible; and going to a local food pantry when she can't make her groceries stretch far enough.
As for pawning her belongings, at times even that option isn't available.
"We've never had much of anything that's worth anything. Therefore, unfortunately, there have also been times when we'd have nothing to pawn," she said. "It's an extremely horrible feeling when you know your child is hungry and you have nothing to offer him."
Her son likely would be counted among the 24.6 percent of Maine children who are food insecure. So would Lacey Bradley's daughter, 3-month-old Yurie.
Bradley, 28, moved to Lewiston from Atlanta earlier this year to be with family. Pregnant then, and now caring for a newborn, she hasn't been able to find a job. She lives with her father, who works, but his paycheck isn't enough to pay for everything the family needs.
"Food doesn't last long each month," she said.
Bradley breastfeeds her daughter, but stress over finances has taken its toll on her body and her ability to produce enough breast milk. She has to supplement with formula.
The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program helps, but her daughter goes through more than a can of formula each week and WIC doesn't take care of her entire need. Formula costs Bradley $13 to $17 a can, depending on whether she gets it at the lower-priced grocery store a few miles away or at the expensive corner store down the street. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how much it costs — she simply doesn't have the money. On Wednesday, out of formula and out of money, she went to the St. Mary's Food Pantry for help.
Bradley thinks about the future, about being able to buy organic and about making healthy baby food for Yurie from scratch because "I'd rather know exactly what she's eating." But for now, she takes what she can get and she's grateful for it.
"There are resources out there," she said. "You just have to go out and find them. Push comes to shove, you're going to be able to get something."
Throughout the state, food pantries, soup kitchens and other food programs pride themselves on being places where people can get that "something." But increasingly, they believe part of the solution to Maine's hunger problem — short of a better economy — is providing hungry families with "something more."
Local WIC offices regularly offer cooking classes and present cooking demonstrations to show families how to quickly and easily cook seasonal vegetables, beans and other foods they may not be familiar with, but which offer a nutritional bang for the buck.
"We want them to try it here," said Ginny Andrews, program manager for Western Maine Community Action's nutrition services. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, I don't like vegetables' or whatnot. And if you have the taste-testing out there, they're going to be more willing to try it. It's kind of fun to see the kids come in. Some of them will take a bite and spit it out, make sour faces. But then others will just ask for more and more."
St. Mary's Nutrition Center is home to St. Mary's food pantry, nutrition education and cooking programs, and Lots to Gardens, a community gardening project that teaches city residents how to grow their own food and gives them a space to do it. The center sponsors three farmers markets and is part of a Wholesome Wave Foundation national pilot "veggie prescription" program that gives needy B Street Health Center patients coupons for free vegetables from one of the farmers markets.
"We think that you have to have a multi-pronged approach to this," said Kirsten Walter, director of the nutrition center. "It can't be a single answer. Until we deal with our economy, we're always going to be dealing with the impacts of poverty and the impact it has on food insecurity. It's important to make sure we have a safety net and an emergency net in place. It's important to help individuals build their capacity to help feed themselves and build that knowledge. We have to be tying efforts together."
But Walter and other hunger experts say even those efforts aren't enough. Since 2009, the nutrition center, Healthy Androscoggin, Bates College and other groups have been working on a comprehensive study on hunger in Lewiston and ways to address it.
Among its early findings: Of the 64 stores in Lewiston that sell grocery items, only seven had a selection of healthy foods. Of those seven, the stores in downtown Lewiston — the poorest section of the city — sold healthy foods at prices 40 percent higher than anywhere else.
Walter is careful not to blame the stores.
"They're independent stores that are doing the best they can," she said. "And I really want to make sure that's clear when we talk about this, that we're not vilifying those stores."
But for poor families with little transportation, the situation leaves them with a difficult choice. Do they walk miles to the supermarket where bananas and apples are cheaper? Or do they shop at the local store, where the selection is more limited and they can't afford as much?
The group's full report is expected to be released by the end of the year. Along with it, the group will offer recommendations and a plan for the future, including the establishment of a community food council to deal with hunger in the area on an ongoing basis.
"Hunger is a hard thing to deal with and a hard thing to talk about," Walter said. "Oftentimes, we don't really see the faces of hunger, nor appreciate what people are going through as they try to feed their family. I think it's an invisible problem. I think it's something we need to think about."