Food pantries feel pinch of tough times
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Appropriate for this time of year, the walls near the entrance to Sloan Elementary School in Murrysville are covered with paper turkeys and feathers.
But the colorful gobblers are more than symbols of the Thanksgiving season. They represent money donated to support the Westmoreland County Food Bank's annual Turkey Cup Challenge.
"At this point, we have up to about $1,900 in donations," said kindergarten teacher Carrie Fisher, who coordinates the school's project.
Ten Westmoreland County schools are rallying to raise money for the food bank so that it can include $10 vouchers with November's regular monthly distribution boxes, which go to 6,500 families throughout the county.
Last year, the challenge raised $20,000.
Because of inflation, the food bank raised the voucher amount to $15 last year, but that resulted in a $30,000 deficit in the 2007 budget, said Marlene Kozak, executive director of the food bank.
Fundraisers such as the Turkey Cup Challenge and other donations account for 30 percent, or $660,000, of the county food bank's $2.2 million 2008 budget.
As the country struggles with an economic downturn, institutions such as food banks, which rely on donated supplies, fundraisers, grants and the work of volunteers, also suffer.
The Westmoreland County Food Bank is in dire need of donations, Ms. Kozak said. That is partly because funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which falls under the umbrella of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been cut nearly in half, from about $150,000 three years ago to $80,000 this year.
The food bank also saw a $20,000 cut in its state Food Purchase Program grant from the previous year. The state Department of Agriculture gives the grants to food banks based on local poverty numbers, Ms. Kozak said. The Westmoreland County Food Bank now receives about $450,000 from the program.
Another challenge facing local food pantries is an increase in the number of families that need their services.
The Westmoreland County Food Bank has had a 12 percent increase in the families it serves, but because of rising costs, monthly food boxes that once weighed 50 to 60 pounds are down to 40, Ms. Kozak said.
A decrease in contributions of government commodities, such as cheese, canned goods and surplus from farmers, also has led to a greater need for donations, Ms. Kozak said. In 2007 and 2008, these were down by 70 percent.
Donations from local grocery stores also have gone down significantly, she said. Businesses that once delivered truckloads of food to the Westmoreland food bank are finding ways to resell dented cans, including in overseas markets.
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank saw a $75,642 cut in its state Food Purchase Program grant from 2006-07 to 2007-08, said chief financial officer Sharon Harm.
In the past month, the Plum Food Pantry has seen an increase in clients from about 150 to 160. It had an 80 percent drop in donations from May through September.
Contributions did pick up in October, however, and seven schools in the Plum Borough School District are sponsoring food drives, said Joe Utterback, chairman of the Plum Food Pantry.
"I was worried for a while," he said.
The KDKA Turkey Fund also has alleviated his concerns with a contribution of 143 Shop 'n Save gift certificates, worth $15 each, that are being distributed with November food boxes. Mr. Utterback said the pantry will probably have to buy another 20 certificates to provide for every needy family.
"For years, we had single mothers and senior citizens," he said. "Now, we're getting people who are laid off -- both parents -- and they just don't have the funds."
For the past 15 years, the pantry has benefited from the generosity of the adult league bowlers at Nesbit's Lanes in Plum. For 10 days in November, the bowlers raise about $2000 through 50-50 raffle drawings.
"You feel good about helping them, but when you see they need more, it hurts," said Rich Nesbit, owner of the lanes.
Ms. Kozak said the monthly food boxes for those in need contain a combination of what's purchased from wholesalers and what is donated. The Westmoreland food bank buys in truckload and half-truckload quantities to get the best prices.
"We try to simulate what you would buy in the store each week," she said.
Foods that are popular and go far are common, such as meat, fruits, vegetables -- some fresh but many in cans -- pasta, sauce and macaroni and cheese.
For Thanksgiving, she said, families can expect traditional fare, including pumpkin pies, yams and cranberry sauce.
The Westmoreland County Food Bank distributes food through about 80 agencies, including soup kitchens that serve people on site and 55 pantries run by volunteers.
Other emergency sites, such as the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry at Newlonsburg Presbyterian Church in Murrysville, use the food bank on a more limited basis, depending mostly on community donations.
"Each church [in Murrysville, Delmont and Export] tries to donate food on a regular basis," said Judy Radcliff, coordinator of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry.
Clients are provided with food for three days of family meals.
Intended to be used by a family as a stopgap when other sources of food have been depleted, Loaves and Fishes also has seen an increase in need from about 15 to 27 families each month.
"So food disappears quickly," Mrs. Radcliff said.
The pantry gets relief from the Newlonsburg Church preschool and an ongoing food drive from Heritage Elementary School in Murrysville.
Other food distribution sites have been seeing an increase in donations because of seasonal food drives.
First Published November 20, 2008 5:52 am