Food banks' holiday fundraiser nets $618,000

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An end-of-year effort to raise money for regional food banks that are having trouble keeping up with demand from needy families generated more than $600,000 -- triple the amount officials at the Pittsburgh Foundation had hoped to raise when they launched the holiday appeal in mid-December.

"The need is startlingly great ... and the general public stepped up quite vigorously," said Grant Oliphant, president and chief executive of the community foundation that contributed about $309,000 in dollar-for-dollar matching funds to the total amount raised from Dec. 10 through Jan. 7.

The appeal, conducted online at the foundation's PittsburghGives website, was scheduled to end Dec. 31, but the foundation extended it because new Mayor Bill Peduto made hunger the charity of choice for his inaugural events earlier this week.

Of the approximately $618,000 raised, about $53,000 will go to the Westmoreland County Food Bank in Delmont, which serves 7,200 households per month.

The balance will go to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, which serves 34,000 households monthly in 11 counties.

"At a time when supplies are very low and the need is great, this funding will help significantly," said Lisa Scales, chief executive of the food bank. "This will help our entire network of pantries, soup kitchens and after-school programs better serve people in each of the neighborhoods."

As the year-end holidays approached, the food bank saw demand at some neighborhood pantries rise by 40 percent over the final months of 2012 as cuts to federal food stamp programs took effect. And the need hasn't diminished in the new year, Ms. Scales said.

On Wednesday, she met with officials at five large pantries in the Pittsburgh suburbs that are experiencing increases in individuals and families turning up for food.

"We're talking about larger pantries in the South Hills and North Hills and Natrona Heights," Ms. Scales said. "They serve a number of people who have no cash income." She said many of those in need are unemployed, and get food and housing help. Sometimes those in need get transportation aid, too.

"They are serving people who are the most vulnerable and have the lowest income or sometimes no income," she said.

The response to the Pittsburgh Foundation appeal was tremendous, Ms. Scales said, but she wasn't surprised "because this is Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania ... and we are generous and believe in neighbors helping neighbors. It's an affirmation of how we take care of each other."

Despite the overwhelming response, food banks and food pantries remain worried about supplying increasing numbers of people in need, as Congress returns to work this week and considers legislation that would affect unemployment compensation and food stamp benefits.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the people of Pittsburgh have spoken through their giving and now it's up to Congress to end the debate on ending or cutting benefits," Ms. Scales said.

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.

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