After more than three decades working to end hunger in the Pine Tree State, the Maine Credit Union League is expanding its efforts, adding financial education into its hunger-relief efforts.
The league partnered with Synergent in 1990 to form the Maine Credit Unions’ Campaign for Ending Hunger, which has emerged as the association’s signature social-responsibility initiative. Credit unions collectively have raised more than $11.3 million since 1990 to fight hunger, including more than $930,000 in 2021 alone.
The issue is particularly relevant this week, when World Hunger Day is marked around the globe. President Biden also recently announced measures aimed at ending hunger in the United States by the end of this decade.
Although food insecurity in Maine is comparatively average, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — southern states tend to have the highest rates of food insecurity — it is one of the worst states in New England. That knowledge has helped drive the Maine league to broaden its impact.
“It’s a campaign initiative that has grown by leaps and bounds over the years,” says Jennifer Burke, the leagues assistant vice president of communications and outreach.
The latest step includes adding financial education into the mix. Earlier this year, the Maine league launched a pilot project to expand its work around fighting hunger, partnering with the Good Shepherd Food Bank to make financial literacy materials available at food distribution sites in the cities of Lewiston and Easton, providing a mix of urban and rural distribution, respectively.
The pandemic has exacerbated the need for food assistance, and inflation has not helped either.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the need for food assistance, and inflation has not helped either,” says Burke, adding that local food banks and pantries have seen an increase in requests for assistance.
Together, the league and food bank are distributing brochures with basic financial tips. The league has produced two brochures so far, covering the importance of establishing banking relationships and the fundamentals of understanding credit. For it’s part, the food bank has distributed more than 400 copies of each of the brochures, slightly more than half translated into Somali, Arabic, French, or Spanish. The league expects the second brochure — covering credit — to begin appearing at food pantries this fall.
The materials have appeared in two food pantries so far, but the league hopes to expand that as the program continues. The other big goal is getting credit union representatives on-site to answer questions and provide information. Ongoing concerns related to the pandemic have kept credit union leaders away thus far, but the league is currently planning its 2023 outreach and hopes to have local partner institutions on-site sometime in the coming year.
“We’d like to get credit unions or the league to volunteer in pantries so that maybe every Tuesday we’ve got somebody from a local credit union that’s there not necessarily soliciting to join the credit union but saying, ‘Hey, you’ve probably seen some of our financial education information — do you have questions? How can we help?’” Burke says.
According to the league AVP, the partnership with Good Shepherd is crucial to the program’s success. Although the league and its member credit unions have relationships with individual local food pantries, Good Shepherd — which as a food bank provides food to local pantries that then distribute to families and individuals — provides food for pantries across the state. That makes it Maine’s third-largest food distributor, behind Walmart and Hannaford supermarkets.
“They’re sort of the think tank around hunger here in Maine,” Burke says. “They do their own fundraising, they have their own distribution centers — they are the face of hunger here in Maine.”
GSFB helped the league select communities in Lewiston, ME, and in Aroostoock County to test the program. Those locales — urban and with a refugee population, and more rural, respectively — offered two different sets of consumers with varied socioeconomic backgrounds, enabling the league to determine whether the program can be a fit for a variety of markets with consumers of varied needs. The area around Aroostoock County was particularly important, says Burke, since the remote, rural nature of that region makes it a challenge to get food distributed to families in need.
When the second round of brochures is distributed, Burke says, they will go to a mix of rural and metropolitan-area pantries.
“The goal is to make sure it’s the right audience, no matter where we go,” she says.
The literature highlights credit unions broadly, but it does not refer readers to any particular institution. And, adds Burke, if readers wind up turning to a bank for their financial services needs, that’s OK, too.
“We’d love to have everyone be a credit union member, but at the end of the day, we want everyone to feel empowered to better their financial position,” Burke says. “If that means doing their banking at a credit union, great. If it’s a community bank, that’s OK, too. It’s about ending hunger, so it’s much bigger than just credit unions.”
After 30 years of the Campaign for Ending Hunger, the league is looking for new avenues that go beyond monetary giving. What’s needed, Burke says, is a collaborative approach.
“It’s not just dollars that are needed but financial education; those go hand-in-hand,” Burke says. “If you don’t have those tools available, it doesn’t’ alleviate the cycle of hunger, which is what we want to do.”