Pittsburgh-area food banks struggle this holiday

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At the Westmoreland County Food Bank in Delmont, demand is so great for the food boxes distributed monthly to the needy that officials have toyed with shrinking the contents of the boxes, which typically contain 65 pounds of meat, pasta, cereals, fresh produce and other items.

"While we never want to do that, clearly this kind of ramp-up in need may warrant that in the future," said Kris Douglas, chief executive of the nonprofit that serves 7,200 households each month.

Though the holiday season is always busy for food banks and food pantries as they try to provide extras for those in need, this year has become especially challenging because of recent reductions in federal food stamp allocations that have left low-income people with fewer resources to put meals on the table.

The federal program officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) received a financial boost in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus package, but the increase expired Nov. 1. Now food bank officials are bracing for further cuts as Congress tries to finalize a new farm bill that could reduce the food stamp program by billions of dollars more.

In response to surging demand at local food banks and pantries, the Pittsburgh Foundation on Tuesday launched a holiday appeal during which it will provide $100,000 in matching funds for donations to local organizations that provide food, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

The foundation's goal is to raise $200,000, including its dollar-for-dollar match funds, from now through Dec. 31 and it said it would increase its match pool if donations exceed $100,000.

Last month, the Pittsburgh food bank saw demand in some neighborhoods rise by 40 percent over November 2012, said Lisa Scales, chief executive of the Duquesne facility that serves 34,000 households per month in 11 counties.

"The holidays are traditionally a challenging time for the families we serve," she said. But with the recent cuts in food stamps, those with limited incomes are feeling more stress as they try to juggle higher winter heating bills with possibly buying a few gifts and obtaining enough food. "They have little wiggle room in their budgets," Ms, Scales said.

For a household of four, the food stamp program cuts that took effect last month equal $36 per month or $432 annually, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks that includes the Pittsburgh and Westmoreland organizations. For a three-member household, the reductions equal $29 monthly and $348 annually; for a two-person household, $20 monthly and $240 annually; and for a single individual, $11 monthly and $132 annually.

"Generally at this time of year, we see some type of increase in need but this year the need is more pronounced," said Mr. Douglas. "Some of our pantries have had more than a 30 percent increase in enrollment. That could be 10 or 20 new enrollees. So with 45 pantries, we could see an extra 900 families."

The Pittsburgh Foundation push announced Tuesday is its first-ever "year-end critical needs appeal," said John Ellis, vice president for communications.

"The situation is quite devastating in terms of the demand food banks are experiencing," he said. "Some of those in need have jobs but don't earn enough to put food on the table or they are senior citizens who have to choose between, 'Do I heat my home, or get the medicine I need, or buy food.' That's the reality.

"It's particularly distressing when you have a situation of hunger in the community in the holiday season. We felt we needed to act on it and galvanize a strong community appeal."

Donations will be accepted at the foundation's online giving site, pittsburghgives.org. Donors must use a credit card and make a minimum commitment of $25; the foundation will cover all credit card transaction fees to ensure all money goes to the Pittsburgh or Westmoreland food banks or to any of the 14 neighborhood food pantries listed on the site.

"For every $1 dollar donated, we can provide $5 in food and services," Ms. Scales said. "That's what's so great about the foundation stepping up and leading the way to say we need to assist food pantries and a network of food providers at this critical point in time."

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580. First Published December 10, 2013 11:07 AM

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