The Maine Meal

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Ideally, no one should go to bed hungry. In reality, a lot of people do. In a unique partnership and with considerable effort, Maine's credit unions have taken it upon themselves to ensure no one goes to bed with an empty stomach in this state.

In the Campaign for Ending Hunger, organized by the Maine Credit Union League, credit unions across the state have helped put food on the tables of the "working poor," and provide the educational tools they need to get back on their feet.

"Back in 1990, the Social Responsibility Committee of the league was looking for a program to support that was more specific to the needs of the state," said Jon Paradise, MCUL director of communications. What stood out most, he said, was Maine's hunger problem. Many also give to the Children's Miracle Network, the most popular charity of credit unions across the nation.

"We're making progress and, I think, building awareness that will ultimately lead to more progress," Paradise said. "People don't necessarily think about people in their own state or their own country being hungry."

Truth be known, Maine's low average income level-$8,000 below the national average, Paradise said-coupled with its high taxes and cold weather has made hunger a top problem in the state.

For many working poor, noted Paradise, the question becomes, "Do they pay for taxes, heating oil or food?" Often, it's the latter that loses out. "These are not the typical people you see on the streets in cardboard boxes," he said. "They are people who are working but are the epitome of working-class poor."

While the government provides funding and programs to help, he said, many people still fall through the cracks. For credit unions that pride themselves on the "people-helping-people" philosophy, it's a perfect opportunity to prove it. He noted that many get food for the day, but they don't necessarily get the skills or assistance they need to get food on a regular basis.

"It's the 'Give the man a fish' story," Paradise said, referring to the observation that if you give a man a fish he eats that day, but if you teach him to fish he eats forever.

Through its partnership with Partners in Ending Hunger, Rockland, Maine, which helps locate and distribute funding to hunger-related organizations, Maine's credit unions have provided support across the state. Last year alone, their bowl-a-thons, hot dog and popcorn sales and direct payroll deductions netted $170,356 for the cause, shattering the previous year's record by $40,000.

"The support from the credit unions is unbelievable," Paradise said. "They really do understand that together we can accomplish more. This is a campaign that truly captures the spirit of Maine people helping Maine people, from Madawaska to Kittery."

Paradise, who oversees the campaign, said he has been pleasantly surprised by the creative efforts made by individual credit unions to participate in the program. "One particular credit union (Dexter Regional FCU in Dexter) developed a direct payroll deduction program to capture those members using remote access for services," he said, noting that members were asked to donate 25 cents a week to the cause.

Not surprisingly, DRFCU was last year's top fundraiser, bringing in $8,400. St. Agatha FCU in St. Agatha also received top honors for raising the most money per member at $1.47. A large portion of their donations came from league-created candles. "We buy the candles for $5 each and the credit unions sell them for $8," he said. "We then donate the $3 to the campaign."

In the first six months of introducing the candle last year, 12,000 were sold. Another credit union, Peoples Regional FCU, hired Santa Claus for a photo shoot, then had him autograph pictures that were sold to members with all proceeds benefiting the campaign.

"Then there was a bowl-a-thon during which $2,000 was raised," Paradise said. "And there are credit unions that sell hot dogs and popcorn on a weekly basis."

Paradise added that there are no administrative costs connected to the program, so all the money goes directly to helping Maine's hungry. Donations are spread across the state via grants of $250 to $3,000. Twenty of last year's top fundraisers received a total of $50,000 in grants to distribute to the hunger organizations of their choice

"There is a particular week during the year where hunger organizations do their own fund raising," he said. "We then give them incentive grants based on what they raised. For example, if an organization raised $75 that week, we'll add another $250."

"It's a very positive program and though it is definitely work to administrate it, it's something I get back way more than I put in," Paradise said. "And my part is a small part of what the credit unions and their members have done to help end hunger in Maine."

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