Category Archives: Social Issues

A Tale of Two Maines

A month ago, the director of the Winthrop Food Pantry sent board members information about the number of people who came to the pantry from January through April 2014. (Full disclosure: I am on the board.) Four hundred two families came, and this added up to 1,102 individuals. For a city the size of Portland or even Augusta, one thousand people might not seem like very many. However, according to the 2010 census, the population of Winthrop is 6,092, and a realtor I know pegged it at 6,200 for 2014. So my town’s population is 6,000, give or take a couple of hundred, and this year between January and April, 1,000 residents were fed by the food pantry.

I admit it. I was shocked that the numbers were so high. I shouldn’t have been. On days when the pantry is open, the waiting room is crammed with people waiting to get food. But to me, Winthrop seems like a middle-class community, a macaroni and cheese kind of place. Yes, there are some wealthy people, and they tend to live by the many beautiful lakes in town, but there are a larger number of state workers and other folks who earn an average salary.

Until I saw the food pantry numbers, I didn’t realize that there were also so many people in town living on the edge, people who are—let’s be honest—earning so little money that they meet the federal guidelines for poverty, the guidelines the pantry uses. The number of people coming to the pantry has risen since the start of the Great Recession, and those numbers don’t seem to be going down anytime soon.

For a completely different view about how some people eat in Maine, you only have to turn to last week’s Maine Sunday Telegram and its recently added food section, Source: Eating and Living Sustainably in Maine. The article’s headline was innocent enough: “Dinner is nearly ready: Summer brings a slew of opportunities for right-there-on-the-farm eating.”

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Bucolic and simple with lots of mouth-watering food fresh from the fields or the creamery at various farms in southern Maine. And I’m sure it is—albeit for a very hefty price. Most of the prices for the farm meals listed were between $110 and $60 per person. Yes, per person. (The Well, at Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth, was the only farm listing with what might be considered a reasonable price—between $23 to $20 per entry, with a kids’ menu available.)

I try to reconcile these two Maines—the thousand people in Winthrop who rely on the food pantry for some of their food, and those who can afford to spend $125 per person on a meal at a farm. But I can’t reconcile these two Maines. As the saying goes, it blows my mind to think about the discrepancy. (The idea of farm food being so expensive also blows my mind.)

To borrow yet again from the late writer Tony Judt, ill fares the land when there is such inequality.

A Franco-American Doc, Poetry, and Potluck

Yesterday, I went to the Lewiston-Auburn College with my friend Claire Hersom to the third annual Poetry & Peace Potluck. Not only did this event include an abundance of poetry and food, but there was also a documentary called Down by the River’s Edge. The film is about the Otis Paper Mill in Chisholm, the southern end of Jay, and the people who worked in and lived by the mill, which closed in 2009. Not surprisingly, the predominant ethnic group was Franco-American. (By one estimate, Franco-Americans make up 30 percent of Maine’s population.) But Chisholm also had Italian and Slovakian immigrants as well. Who knew there were so many ethnic groups in the Jay/Livermore Falls area? I certainly didn’t.

Down by the River’s Edge is a combination of stills and clips of interviews with people, some of them quite old, who had worked in the mill. The film did a nice job of weaving in the various elements of life in a mill town—the history, the hard work, the big families, the crowded living conditions, the sense of community, the Catholic church, and the fun that people made for themselves.

Susan Gagnon, the writer and director, was on hand for a discussion after the film. She told about how she wanted to expand the stories told about mill towns, which usually included the words “dirty” and “working class.” Growing up in Chisholm, Susan saw a vibrancy and a keen sense of community. She became aware that the story of the workers at the Otis Paper Mill had never been recorded, and Susan had to “beg and borrow but not steal” the many stills featured in Down by the River’s Edge.

The story of Maine is also the story of the Ku Klux Klan, who were a major presence in the state and marched against Franco-Americans and other Catholics. Susan decided not include that segment in her film, and while I understand that her focus was on the people and the community of Chisholm, it seems to me that to not include something about the Klan was a major omission.

Nevertheless, Down by the River’s Edge, four years in the making, is a good film. Not only is it worth seeing, but it also tells the stories of people who for too long have not had a voice.

After the documentary came poetry, and many of Maine’s notable poets were at the Poetry Peace Potluck. Henry Braun, Gary Lawless, Robert Farnsworth, Jeri Theriault, and my personal favorite, Claire Hersom, are just a sample of the fine poets who read yesterday. The general themes were peace, May Day, and workers.

Claire read “In America Dreaming,” which ties in Walt Whitman, the Civil War, and the Vietnam War. She gave me permission to quote from the poem, and here are the last two stanzas, especially lovely and poignant and wistful.

Isn’t that what you wanted, to have a place
and a breeze
blowing against your face.
And when it got too loud to hear the birds,
to hunker down, hold on the the sway of the world?

Sometimes at night, I think I hear you
endlessly calling to the universe.
I see you illumed in the night’s shadows
rambling across the meadows
climbing the old stone walls
searching for a way back.

In the front row, Susan Gagnon is third from the left, and Claire Hersom is fourth from the left.
In the front row, Susan Gagnon is third from the left, and Claire Hersom is fourth from the left.

A Franco-American Salon at Susan Poulin’s House

The dessert table, with about half the desserts that were brought to the Salon.

On Sunday, I went to Susan (aka Ida LeClair) Poulin’s house for a Franco Salon. A bit of backstory: For the past few years, Franco-American writers, musicians, educators, and story tellers have been getting together once a year for what we call Rassemblement, a gathering. The past couple of years we have met at the Darling Marine Center in beautiful Walpole, Maine. At the gatherings, we read, we perform, we present, we sing, and being Francos, we talk. A lot. At each Rasemblement, there is a wonderful feeling of support, of camaraderie, and a sense—to borrow from Susan—of coming home.

(The history of Franco-Americans in Maine is not a happy story. It’s filled with prejudice and discrimination, ranging from voter suppression to the Klan marching against Francos. By Maine law, French—as it was spoken by Franco-Americans—was stamped out in schools, at work places, and other public institutions, and by the time my generation came, it was mostly gone. No bilingualism for Maine. No, siree.)

Anyway, we all enjoyed being together so much, that someone—perhaps Denis Ledoux?—suggested we get together throughout the year to share our work and support each other. So various people have opened their homes for Franco Salons, and last Sunday Susan Poulin—a talented storyteller and writer—and her husband Gordon Carlisle—a Francophile and a talented artist—opened their home to us.

As a good eater, I must first comment on the food. There were 13 or so of us at the Rasemblement, and I swear we had enough food to feed at least 20, maybe even more. We Francos are taught, at an early age, that to not have enough food at a gathering is a very, very bad thing. Maybe not a mortal sin, but certainly a venial sin. Indeed, to run out of food at a party would be enough to make most Francos twist inside out with mortification.

Therefore, there was quantity—breads, cheese, crackers, oranges, and a multitude of desserts—but there was also quality. Oh, there was quality. Susan made two delicious soups—a turkey sausage soup and a peanut stew. She also made a huge salad so delectable that I could have filled up on just that and some of the wonderful bread other guests brought. Part of what made the salad so good was the dressing Susan made, with a high quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar she gets from a local shop. I can truthfully say that I’ve never tasted such a good dressing.

Oh, that salad!
Oh, that salad!

After we finished eating and talking, we settled into the living room. I read a couple of posts from my blog, and Susan read from her “Ida” blog as well. David Morreau and Susann Pelletier read poetry. Michael Parent told a story of the legendary Ti-Jean, sometimes a fool and sometimes a genius. Lucie Therrien sang two songs. Bob Perreault read from his novel, and Denis from a memoir he’s writing about his time in the seminary. Joan Vermette read a portion of an imagined monologue from a long-dead cousin who talks from way beyond the grave. Norman BeauprĂ© read a scene from of one his novels.

As I listened, not only did I feel as though I was “at home” with these gifted Franco-Americans, but I also felt proud to be a part of this group, proud to be Franco-American.

Michael Parent's hand digging into dip. He, too, is a good eater.
Michael Parent’s hand digging into dip. He, too, is a good eater.

Elders in Maine Struggling with Food Insecurity

Recently in the Portland Press Herald, there was an excellent piece about Jim and Nancy Pike, two Maine senior citizens who are struggling to stay afloat on their social security benefits, which come to about $15,000 a year. Normally, I would feature this on Friday, the day I reserve for posting interesting links, but the couple’s story was so compelling, so much a sign of our times, that I thought it deserved a post all on its own.

According to Gillian Graham’s article, Jim and Nancy Pike, who are 65 and 77 respectively, have worked hard at various jobs. She had a child daycare in her home for 30 years. He cut wood, took care of other people’s properties, and drove a truck for Meals on Wheels. They grew their own vegetables, cooked their own meals, made their own bread, and raised a big family. Nancy “worked until she was 59 and was forced to stop after she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.” Jim’s last job was as a handyman at a motel, and between what he earned and what Nancy received from Social Security, they were able to make ends meet. But then Jim had a heart attack and a stroke, and he was unable to work.

So now they have joined the ranks of food insecure seniors. As Nancy puts it in the article, “We’re broke before the end of the month.” Because the Pikes are at the poverty line, they do qualify for $66 a month in food stamps and are eligible for other programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income seniors. (The latter is a federal program.) The Pikes also go to their local food pantry. She clips coupons, they shop the sales, and they don’t buy processed food. They get by, but just barely.

Naturally, my heart goes out to the Pikes, who must live on such a small amount of money. But what really floors me is the cuts Congress made in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income seniors. (Fortunately, the Pikes are still enrolled in this program.) In 2013, the program was reduced by nearly $5.2 million. This meant that 35 Mainers had to be cut from the program, and the year before 60 people were cut. Not surprisingly, there is a waiting list of 1,200 for this program.

How can Congress cut programs such as this? How can they justify reducing benefits to poor elders who are no longer able to work for a living? I would love to hear the explanations. On second thought, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe it would be such a load of bull that it would be hard to take.

One of the richest countries in the world can’t afford to support seniors who can no longer work? Really?

I don’t believe it. As the late, writer Tony Judt observed, “Ill Fares the Land.”


Lunch at Petite Jacqueline in which We Celebrate Joan’s Birthday and Hear Good News about the Affordable Care Act

A tasty lunch at Petite Jacqueline
A tasty lunch at Petite Jacqueline

Yesterday, with a merry heart, I drove to Portland to meet my friends Joan and Susan at Petite Jacqueline, where we celebrated Joan’s birthday. (Yes, I know. I’m involved in a lot of birthday celebrations. And I just love it.) The food is oh so tasty at Petite Jacqueline, and the servers let us talk long after the restaurant had closed for the afternoon. I also must admit that I have a soft spot for any restaurant that has a “Bonjour” sign at its entrance. The sign seems like a sweet little nod to the Franco-American population of the state, a population that at 30 percent is so large that it’s almost not a minority.

We talked about many things—my writing projects; Susan’s various performances—she’s a very talented actor; and Joan’s renovation of the family farm, a huge endeavor that Joan is approaching with pluck and energy. But one of the most interesting parts of the conversation was Susan’s description of getting insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, also sometimes known as Obamacare. (Sorry, Joan! I know how you hate that term.)

A bit of a backstory: Susan Poulin and her husband, Gordon Carlisle, are one of Maine’s power art couples. She is an actor, he is an artist, and they are able to support themselves through their work. This is a testament not only to their prodigious talent but also to their hard work and organizational skills. To say I admire them is quite an understatement.

Because they are self-employed, Susan and Gordon have had to buy their own health insurance, and for years they went with Dirigo Health, a state-sponsored plan. As with most freelancers, Susan and Gordon’s income varies, and sometimes they had to pay $500 per month for insurance while other years they had to pay as much as $900 per month, a hefty price for an actor and an artist. Quite a burden, in fact.

Now that the Affordable Care Act is in effect, Dirigo is ending, and Susan and Gordon had to change health-care plans. With the help of a certified “navigator,” Susan and Gordon successfully enrolled in the silver plan offered by the Affordable Care Act. Their new cost? $188 a month, with benefits as good as their old $500 to $900 plan.

“When I heard the price, I had tears in my eyes,” Susan admitted. “We can easily afford $188 a month.”

Her advice for people who have affordable health insurance through their work or through Medicare yet like to gripe about the Affordable Care Act? “Shut the ‘bleep’ up. You have no idea how expensive it is to buy health insurance on your own.”

Naturally, I was thrilled to hear that because of the Affordable Care Act, Susan and Gordon soon would have affordable health insurance that provided great coverage. It’s not only good for them, but it’s also good for other people who want to work for themselves. They now have the freedom to do so without worrying about the cost of health care, and it is my guess the Affordable Care Act is going to be a huge boon for artists and entrepreneurs and, in turn, for this country. Without affordable health care, there can be no freedom, no security, and this stifles creativity.

I was also thrilled for Clif and me. Clif is 6 years older than I am, and in 4 years he will be able to retire with decent if modest benefits as well as Medicare. However, I will only be 60, and I most definitely have a preexisting condition—I was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago. I hated the thought of Clif having to work until he was 72 so that I could have affordable health insurance, and now he won’t have to do so.

Susan gave me permission to use her story because she wanted readers to know the good news about the Affordable Care Act. It is true that the beginning has had a rough start. Nevertheless, the good that will come from the Affordable Care Act far outweighs the bumpy start.

It is my guess that in the future, Obama (BHO?) will attain the same status as FDR and LBJ when it comes to progressive legislation that has done so much good for so many people.

Despite rough beginnings, sometimes this country does move forward.



Rob Hopkins, of the Transition Movement, Comes to Maine

Rob Hopkins
Rob Hopkins

Last Friday, I went to the University of New England in Portland to hear a talk by Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Movement, whose purpose is “to support community-led responses to peak oil and climate change, building resilience and happiness.” In the green world, Rob Hopkins is a rock star, akin to Michael Pollan’s and Mark Bittman’s status in the foodie world. The event was held in Ludcke Auditorium and was sponsored and supported by, among others, Portland Maine Permaculture, The Resilience Hub, and the School of Social Work of Student Organization.

Before I write about Rob Hopkins and Transition, I’ve got to come clean about the food. Margot, of Sustain Wayne, organized this trip, and her friend David and his daughter Vanessa came as well. Margot registered all of us, and I didn’t pay too much attention to the details other than the time—6:00 p.m. Because of Hopkins’s high profile in the green world, we knew the place would be packed—it was—and we all agreed we should be at Ludcke Auditorium early. I also had a vague awareness that there would be some kind of reception before the talk.

In fact, the reception was a potluck, and what a potluck it was. There were pickled beets with goat cheese—I could have easily eaten half of them; a kale salad; cheese biscuits; sushi; the sweetest homemade apple sauce, made from wild apples, that I’ve ever tasted; a roasted eggplant spread as well as many other delectable items. When a woman dropped off a plate of sliced carrot cake, I decided it was time to move away from the table, to return to my seat and start taking notes.

Those beets!
Those beets!

But because I didn’t realize there would be a potluck, I didn’t bring anything to contribute, and I hang my head in shame. “Never mind,” Margot said. “There was plenty of food.” This was certainly true. But still! If I go to another event sponsored by Portland Maine Permaculture and the Resilience Hub, you can be sure I will check to see if a potluck is part of the program and then duly bring something to add.

Rob Hopkins is from Totnes, England. He is attractive, smart, articulate, and funny. Then, of course, there is the accent. All his qualities ensured that he would receive rapt attention from most of the women—I certainly don’t want to speak for everyone—in the audience. Few American women can resist a cute, smart, funny chap with an English accent.

However, attractiveness aside, what is most important about Rob Hopkins is his message of how community and local work can address the biggest challenge of our time—climate change. While Hopkins made it clear that there is a definite need for government action on every level—from national to state to regional—he also made it clear that communities shouldn’t wait for government to lead the way. “We” can do something now, and it is crucial that we get started. (The Transition movement came about with that realization and with many years of teaching. Hopkins started the first two-year permaculture course at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland.)

Using a slide show, Hopkins gave examples of the various projects that different communities around the world have started, from community gardens in public spaces to solar panels in a London inner-city neighborhood to the design and use of local currencies. The Transition movement’s philosophy is that because all communities are different, the projects will vary from community to community.

Hopkins also spoke of the myth of endless growth that seems to have taken hold in the minds of too many economists and politicians; of how dangerous it was to have our food production and distribution in the hands of so few; and of how we cannot burn all the remaining fossil fuel without disastrous results. Hopkins even stated, during the Q & A at the end of his talk, that he didn’t see how we could continue driving cars the way we do, especially here in Maine, where there is rural “sprawl.” (Naturally, we don’t like to think about our state that way.)

Because I am so familiar with the Transition movement and Rob Hopkins, none of what he said was exactly new to me. However, as someone who cares very much about climate change, it was good to be reminded of the various points—the dangers of climate change, how our current system is ill equipped to deal with the challenge of a new economy, and the importance of community work.

And speaking of community…before the talk, David, Vanessa, and I were looking at the crowd. “There is such a range of ages here,” Vanessa said. “Young, old, and in between.” Yes, there was a range of ages, and it was notable. All too often at such events, the age of the audience is either heading toward retirement or already there. But not this audience.

“The event is also well organized,” I said.

“Yet relaxed,” David said.

Diversity of age. Organized yet relaxed. A timely, important message delivered with humor and passion and an English accent. All in all, a very good event.

The crowd
The crowd





Spicy Cabbage Soup for a Cold Spring Day

IMG_3212 Here in central Maine, even though it is spring, the ground is still covered with snow. In my refrigerator sits a great green cabbage purchased for 39 cents a pound before St. Patrick’s Day. What to do with this formidable vegetable on a cold day? Why, make soup of course, which is just what I did yesterday. And because my day was busy with a meeting, I made the soup early and put it in my crockpot so that it could simmer away while I was at the meeting. As a bonus, the house smelled spicy and good when I came home. Now, cabbage does not have the best reputation for smelling good when it cooks, but this soup somehow incorporates the flavor of cabbage without the traditional—ahem—pungent smell.

The soup itself is all vegetables and would certainly be fine as is, but my husband, Clif, and I like a little chew with our soup, so I cooked some small pasta to add to the bowls after the soup had simmered most of the day. Pasta can be mixed right into the soup for the last 45 minutes or so, but a funny thing happens to pasta in leftover soup. It swells and swells and swells like some kind of science-fiction creature until it gets too big and soft. Clif and I have decided that we like pasta and rice in soup much better as last minute add-ins.

Clif went back for seconds—always a good sign—and gave it his Yankee rating of “Pretty darned good.”

On a less  upbeat note…at the meeting I went to—a board meeting at the Winthrop Food Pantry—I learned a sobering statistic. Maine ranks with Mississippi and Louisiana for its number of hungry, food-insecure children—18 percent. I was shocked and so were many of the other board members. I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked. In Maine, wages are low, and the cost of living is high. It only stands to reason that families would have a hard time buying good, nutritious food for their children. But still!

This cabbage soup is made with basic ingredients, which means not only is it spicy, warm, and nourishing, but it is also a very frugal dish, even when you use Muir Glenn tomatoes—purchased on sale—as I did.

This soup has a lot going for it—healthy, low-cost, aromatic, reasonably low in calories, and tasty. Eat up!