Food banks struggle for holidays


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Thanksgiving is a time for appreciating our blessings, but that can be difficult for parents, seniors and others who struggle to feed themselves and their families.

"Going out and getting a good job with a living wage is getting more difficult," said Kris Douglas, CEO of the Westmoreland County Food Bank, which has seen an increase in hungry people using the services of food pantries. "There's a misnomer that people think the people [using the bank] are unemployed, but that's not true."

Hunger and food insecurity -- regularly missing meals or not knowing where the next meal is coming from -- don't show bias among the 18,000 Westmoreland County people who need charitable food assistance each month, Mr. Douglas said. About 34 percent of those affected are children, with another 13 percent seniors and 53 percent the working poor or disabled population.

Mr. Douglas said the typical new food bank client is a parent with several jobs who is having trouble making ends meet after losing more lucrative employment in wake of the national recession. Some of the food bank's 47 pantries have seen increases of more than 30 percent in recent months. That translates to 1,000 more families than were served by the agency in 2009.

"Westmoreland County in general continues to bleed jobs," Mr. Douglas said. "The senior and kid population is the scariest."

The story is the same throughout Western Pennsylvania, where food bank operators and volunteers are being forced to get more creative to make sure their cupboards aren't bare as their client list grows.

"Our cupboards are definitely struggling to meet their needs," said Debbie Gould, one of the food program coordinators at Butler County Community Action, about the 26 food cupboards that feed a growing number of families throughout the county.

Complicating things this holiday season is a federal government end to stimulus funds that were used in 2009 to boost the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, namely, food stamps. The 47 million Americans who receive support through the program have seen cutbacks beginning Nov. 1, averaging $36 in benefits lost each month.

While some of those food stamp recipients were already food bank clients, many were not; now the nonprofit agencies are dealing with a double blow: the usual increase around the holidays and new clients forced onto their rolls from food stamp cutbacks.

"We're bracing ourselves for that," said Alyssa Jurewicz-Johns, manager of community engagement for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "We've already seen a significant increase."

Communities farther south and west also are feeling the pinch.

"We've had a 90 percent increase in the past three years, with the downturn of the economy," said Lisa Nuccetelli, executive director of the Greater Washington County Food Bank. "And we anticipate additional people who don't usually get food in November and December."

The agency's 2,000 Turkeys campaign started in 1983 as a seasonal food drive to ensure that unemployed people had Thanksgiving turkeys on their holiday table. But now, the agency must come up with vouchers for more than 5,074 turkeys to feed nearly 21,000 people, Ms. Nuccetelli said.

The agency is on target to raise the more than $100,000 needed to provide their clients with a $15 voucher for the purchase of a ham or turkey for Thanksgiving, thanks largely to corporate and local media sponsors, Ms. Nuccetelli said. The voucher amount was raised from $10 due to the increased cost of groceries.

The food bank provides the rest of the holiday fixings in an extra box of food, including potatoes, carrots, stuffing mix and canned foods at its 38 pantries throughout the county.

"We also provide the rest of the Thanksgiving meal," which doesn't interfere with the normal monthly allotment of food each family receives, she said.

Providing coupons for turkeys is also a system used by the Pittsburgh Food Bank, which distributes $10 vouchers to its 120,000 clients in 11 counties.

The agency's 14th annual fall fundraiser, Fall FoodShare, has seen a significant bump in donations since cashiers at participating Giant Eagle stores began directly soliciting donations from customers as they check out, Ms. Jurewicz-Johns said.

The Girl Scouts of Southwestern Pennsylvania also has been a big help during the monthlong campaign, Ms. Jurewicz-Johns said, by distributing a most-needed foods list to shoppers at the 63 participating Giant Eagle stores in 11 counties.

"Our intent is to stamp out childhood hunger," Ms. Jurewicz-Johns said.

The most needed items on the list include nonperishable staples, such as peanut butter, cereal, tuna and canned fruit, along with nonfood necessities, such as diapers and laundry detergent. Last year, the effort resulted in 29,450 pounds of food and other goods collected.

Cash is, of course, always welcomed, too, and the first effort last year to solicit donations at the register proved to be a financial boon, raising $157,000 -- much more than in previous years, Ms. Jurewicz-Johns said.

"Giant Eagle really has helped us streamline the process," with the register collections, she said.

The Pittsburgh Food Bank also will receive donations this year from the KDKA-TV Turkey Fund, a holiday telethon Dec. 18 by WPXI-TV, and from a Santa photo booth that the agency will sponsor at the Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Market Square from Nov. 23 to Dec. 23. Last year, the $5 per photo fundraiser netted the agency $20,000 in just a couple of weeks. This year, scores of volunteers will staff the photo booth, she said.

Also benefiting from the KDKA turkey drive will be Butler County's food pantries that serve 2,300 residents each month. Ms. Gould said the county has no plans to give families Thanksgiving turkeys or vouchers, but the group is hoping to collect enough donations to provide Christmas dinner. And, she said, individual pantries collect donations and cash to purchase needed goods.

Ms. Jurewicz-Johns said money donations go further for the food banks than they would for ordinary consumers.

"For every dollar that the food bank collects, we purchase $5 worth of food through wholesale buying," Ms. Jurewicz-Johns said.

Mr. Douglas from the Westmoreland food bank said that while he has faith in the local community providing holiday meals for the hungry, he's more concerned about what will happen to those burgeoning numbers during the remainder of the winter.

"This time of year, people tend to be more generous, but hunger doesn't disappear on Jan. 1," he said. "We've been seeing a general increase in need lately."

And, Mr. Douglas continues to be concerned about plans by Congress to cut SNAP benefits further. House Republicans have approved slashing up to $40 billion from the program by making it more difficult to qualify for food stamps, and Democrats in the Senate have proposed scaling the program back by $4 billion through administrative changes.

"Food banks would have to double their production overnight," if some of the cuts are approved, he said.

These days, the Westmoreland agency distributes food to about 15,000 recipients each month, and it plans to give every household a Thanksgiving turkey from the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program instead of a voucher.

"They're getting so much more by getting a real turkey," said Mr. Douglas, who said each bird weighs an average of 13 pounds, enough to feed a family of four easily.

Like the Pittsburgh and Washington food banks, Westmoreland also will provide an extra box of food to families this month, including 65 pounds of Thanksgiving staples. In Westmoreland, help is available at any one of the agency's 45 pantries or 33 other locations, such as soup kitchens, churches and shelters, which receive food from the food bank.

To be eligible for food bank assistance, household income must be below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, based on the number of people in each household. Seniors over the age of 60 are eligible if they are below 130 percent of the income guidelines.

To make a donation or get more information about food bank services, contact:

Greater Pittsburgh: www.pittsburghfoodbank.org or 412-460-3663

Westmoreland County: www.westmorelandfoodbank.org or 724-468-8660

Greater Washington County: www.gwcfb.org or 724-229-8175

Butler County: 724-284-5126.

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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