Pittsburgh churches take on challenge of feeding region's hungry

Local establishments hope to provide food at reduced rates for those struggling

Before the Sunday worship service at Fountain of Life Church of Pittsburgh, members gather for a communal meal called "morning cafe."

It's partly for spiritual fellowship, said Bishop Gerald Loyd, but it's also a way to get a hot meal to those who don't always know where their next one is coming from -- including congregation members as well as youths stopping in from the surrounding neighborhood in Hazelwood.

"I really feel like we're in the time in which the church needs to help people," said Bishop Loyd.

Faith leaders roll out community-based hunger relief effort

Faith leaders hold a news conference to talk about a new community-based hunger relief effort called Operation Affordable Food. (Video by Nate Guidry; 11/8/2013)

The congregation is one of a cluster of churches that announced Thursday they are partnering with a regional faith-based charity, His Food Ministry, to provide food at reduced rates for the needy.

The announcement took place at Petra International Ministries in Pittsburgh, which will serve as regional food distribution center for food supplied by the Derry-based His Food Ministry. Other participating churches will then pick up food from Petra for distribution and sell at discounted rates to individuals in their neighborhoods.

"We are dealing with an increasing hunger problem in our country," said Bishop Donald Clay of Petra.

The problem doesn't just afflict the homeless or the unemployed, he said, but also working people whose wages are too low to support their families.

"Their money is running out before the month runs out," prompting them to turn to fast food and other cheap but unhealthy food sources, Bishop Clay said. That, he noted, results in the paradoxical rise of both obesity and hunger.

"We're saying as religious leaders, we're going to be part of the solution," Bishop Clay said.

The 2-year-old His Food Ministry already works in much of Pennsylvania and surrounding states such as Ohio and West Virginia, said Pastor Ronald Kosor, its president.

The organization purchases food from wholesalers and distributes it to regional and local drop-off sites, particularly churches. People who want to participate can order food online at www.hisfoodministry.net, enter their ZIP code and find out when they can pick it up at local sites. They can purchase the food at discounted wholesale prices, and can pay with EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards, which provide federal food benefits.

Churches can also print out menus and include their contact information for people to pick up at libraries and other public buildings.

"We go out and find the best food we can each month," Mr. Kosor said.

Among its goals is to reduce the prevalence of "food deserts" -- places with few options for purchasing groceries, particularly healthy ones, often in poor neighborhoods where some residents struggle not only to afford food but to get transportation to where it's available.

But while the program is geared toward the needy, there are no means tests for participants. "If you eat, you qualify," Mr. Kosor said.

On display at Thursday's news conference were an array of frozen and non-perishable boxed foods as examples of the kinds of items to be provided under the partnership, ranging from rigatoni and frozen tilapia fillets to frozen smoked sausage and smoked ham.

Bishop Clay said churches and other faith-based organizations can enlist in the program.

In Pittsburgh, nearly 30,000 people live in a "food desert," which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a low-income area that is a half mile from the nearest supermarket in a city or 10 miles in the country.

Some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods include Hazelwood and poorer sections of the North Side and Penn Hills. Others include South Oakland and swaths of Lower Lawrenceville, where gentrification still hasn't brought a reliable food source.

Across Allegheny County, nearly 8 percent of residents live in a food desert, including much of Rankin, Braddock and Aliquippa.

More than 22,000 Pittsburgh households, or 17 percent of the city, receive food stamps, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Countrywide, 18.3 million Americans live without convenient access to supermarkets, according to 2010 Census figures.

The department also estimated that 12 percent of Pennsylvania households and nearly 15 percent of American households, or 49 million people, had low food security in 2012, defined as lacking access for at least part of the time to food adequate for "an active, healthy life for all household members."

For Allegheny County, 13.6 percent of people lived in food insecurity in 2012, according to the hunger-relief charity Feeding America.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. Andrew McGill contributed.

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