- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Food pantries in Maine say they are increasingly overworked as a result of tougher eligibility requirements for food stamp recipients under GOP Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

One in four respondents to a recent survey commissioned by hunger relief agencies Preble Street and Good Shepherd Food Bank reported being dropped in the past year from the federal food stamps program administered by the state. The highest rates of food insecurity are in Maine’s less populated northern and rural counties.

Maine had about 230,000 food stamps recipients in 2014 compared to about 190,000 participants currently. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that while the percentage of those struggling to put food on their tables has declined nationally, the rate of food insecurity has increased to about 200,000 Mainers - or nearly 16 percent of households.

“Every week hundreds of families line up for food at our pantry. But we wish they didn’t have to,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street.

Maine has 400 pantries, up from 40 four decades ago, he also noted.



The LePage administration has said tighter eligibility requirements are needed to ensure limited resources are being directed toward the state’s most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and disabled. The governor, who has made welfare reform a cornerstone of his agenda, has also said his policies - including job training programs - are getting Mainers back to work.

The hunger relief groups in response are backing legislation to expand food assistance programs and address issues like transportation.

“The food pantry network is a vital lifeline for families and seniors across our state, but food pantries have been asked to do too much,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. She said food pantries are feeding more than 15 percent of Maine’s households - an indicator of a “systemic problem.”

University of Southern Maine professor Michael Hillary and University of New Hampshire doctoral student Jean Bessette surveyed more than 2,000 people at food pantries in 24 towns in every county of the state. The study, which was released last week, found 86 percent of households seeking hunger relief included a child, senior or person with a disability.

The number of people on food stamps has fallen in most states after rising during the Great Recession, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Maine, like most states, has since reinstituted a three-month limit on food stamps for certain people between the ages of 18 and 50 in every three-year period.

LePage’s administration has also blocked childless households from receiving food stamps if they have assets worth more than $5,000, which doesn’t include a house or primary vehicle.

“The people between 19 and 50, they need to work because the simple fact is this: Free is going to be expensive to somebody,” LePage said at a recent Biddeford forum.

His office and the state Department of Health and Human Services didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday and Tuesday.

The federal government has criticized Maine’s food stamp application backlog. LePage last summer threatened to halt state administration of food stamps if he couldn’t ban their use on junk food and soda, and has since asked the Trump administration for permission to issue a ban.

Elton Thornhill, a U.S. Navy veteran, said he was cut from the food stamps program. “The whole point of these benefits, after you have served your country, is to be able to rely on them,” he said in the study.

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