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August 31, 2011

Hunger is a Reality on Mount Desert Island

by Craig Idlebrook

A mother and child have a meal at the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor.
A mother and child have a meal at the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor. Photo courtesy of Common Good Soup Kitchen

Somewhere on the west side of Mount Desert Island, there is a mother who is trying everything possible to stretch her food budget, said Susan Buell, co-chair of the Westside Food Pantry in Southwest Harbor. In an interview for the pantry’s brochure, the mother said she sometimes feeds her children cereal three times a day at the end of the month. Buell can’t say for sure how many other of the food pantry’s clients are in similar straits.

“We don’t ask, so we don’t know,” Buell said. “We don’t want to intimidate people.”

The lean times on Mount Desert Island (MDI) can be hard to imagine amid the salad days of summer, when “Help Wanted” signs are plentiful and there is a steady flow of celebrity sightings. But in the winter, when the food pantry and a nearby soup kitchen open their doors, jobs are scarce and many locals must live off of their earnings for the summer.

And the need for food assistance is getting more acute each winter. Last year, the Westside Food Pantry saw a 16 percent jump in requests for food vouchers over the previous season. Food banks across the state have reported increased demand, and it would be easy to assume that enclaves like Hancock County would be better poised to ride out the recent economic troubles. But a 2007 Healthy Acadia study found that increased need for food stamps in Hancock County outstripped the state average by 11 percent in a recent three-year period, and that was before the 2008 economic meltdown.

The increased demand for food assistance on the west side of the island has come at a time when foundation donations to the food pantry have dropped by 35 to 50 percent, said the food pantry’s co-chair Dean Henry. The pantry’s annual operating budget rose $16,000 and the organization used its savings to keep its doors open. Henry believes the coming winter will bring even more demand and fewer donations.

“We’re already looking at how to cut back on what we can give,” he said. 

In some respects, the economic troubles on MDI are fueled by the same factors that ail the U.S. economy, including the high unemployment rate and the rising cost of heating oil. But local observers feel MDI must weather some unique hurdles in the current economic storm, including skyrocketing property values and the loss of many year-round boatbuilding jobs. Lobstering and the tourist trade are what remains, said Larry Stettner, co-founder of the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor.

“When I first moved here, there was a lot of [winter] traffic every day by my house,” Stettner said. “Now, there’s nothing.”

As the year-round jobs have left, so have young families. The towns of Tremont and Southwest Harbor have been in discussion to consolidate their two elementary schools because of plummeting enrollment. The drain of youth off-island has left many older residents on the west side having trouble making ends meet, said Stettner.

“The older people don’t have the younger people to sustain them anymore,” he said.

The food pantry would probably have experienced more of a strain were it not for the opening of the Common Good Soup Kitchen a few years ago. It was started by out-of-work chef Bill Morrison in 2009. Morrison, Stettner and a handful of volunteers opened up a cafe in the winter near the Seawall Motel, envisioning a place where everyone could come for nourishing soup and community once a week.

Last winter, Stettner noticed that there was an increased demand. “They were lining up early to make sure there would be food to take home with them,” Stettner said.

The group runs a café in the summer in an attempt to fund the winter soup kitchen. But in practice, the café doesn’t earn enough to support the winter project, and the outfit has been forced to use up its savings. The organization is still trying to find ways to fund its winter program this year.

Buell worries about the economic health of MDI because the Westside Food Pantry has become a social establishment and the need for food help continues to grow. It shows, she said, that the local economy is fundamentally out of balance.  The Westside Food Pantry first opened its doors 20 years ago. When Buell became involved, she said she never thought it would need to be a permanent fixture.

“We should not need a food pantry here for 20 years,” Buell said.

Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer living in Somerville, Mass.

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