LEWISTON — With food costs skyrocketing and more families facing hunger, St. Mary's Food Pantry is in need of donations.
The pantry, which provides people with once-a-month emergency help, has all but emptied its storeroom in an effort to meet demand. Once so filled with canned vegetables, cereal and other food that it was difficult for volunteers to navigate around the boxes, the room is now nearly empty, home to more bare pallets than food.
The pantry's public shelves, where families get their food, are only sparsely stocked. On Friday, a box of food for one or two people consisted of cereal, crackers, a small can of soup, a couple of cans of tuna, a couple of cans of green beans and a few containers of yogurt.
A year ago the pantry could offer enough food to last three or four days. Not now.
"What we're giving out now is probably a day or two of food, at the most," said Kirsten Walter, director of St. Mary's Nutrition Center, which runs the pantry. "We're giving out less each box."
Part of the problem is that the pantry's food costs have ballooned. In early 2010 it spent $1.84 to provide a box of food. In mid-2011, it spent $8.44 for a box. Walter believes the cost is a little higher now.
That's because St. Mary's gets much of its food from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Auburn. The food bank used to take in so much salvaged food from supermarkets that it could provide St. Mary's and other pantries with those nonperishables for 16 cents a pound. But as supermarkets have computerized, becoming more efficient in ordering and inventory, that salvaged food has slowly disappeared.
A year and a half ago, St. Mary's could get a couple of salvaged cans of tuna for 16 cents. Today, salvaged cans of tuna don't exist, so St. Mary's pays Good Shepherd 76 cents per can, close to retail rates.
"I want to be very careful not to vilify Good Shepherd, because they're doing everything they can," Walter said.
Good Shepherd said it would like to provide less costly food, but the salvaged items aren't there like they once were.
"There are some food banks out there that are down to no salvaged food," Good Shepherd President Kristen Miale said. "We're not there yet, but we can see the writing on the wall."
The other problem for St. Mary's: More people need help.
Walter sees need spike at the beginning of each school year, as low-income parents spend money on school supplies and children's clothes and have less to spend on food. At Good Shepherd, Agency Services Manager Jeremy Hammond said high energy costs, including gasoline and heating oil, also eat into families' food budgets.
So far this year, St. Mary's has fed an average of 1,650 people each month. September's numbers are on track to be higher, with 550 people fed in the first five days.
Both Walter and Good Shepherd's leaders agree that St. Mary's Food Pantry isn't the only one struggling. All food pantries and soup kitchens are dealing with higher food costs, and most are seeing greater need.
"We had an agency conference last June, and I remember when we had all our agencies in the room, somebody asked the question of, 'How many of you have seen a 50 percent or more increase in demand?' I would say at least two-thirds raised their hands," Miale said.
While the struggle isn't unique, St. Mary's size is. It's one of the largest food pantries in Lewiston-Auburn. When it can't get food, more people go hungry.