Rural food banks struggle to meet need
Sam Kniha, programs administrator for the Corner Cupboard Foodbank in Waynesburg, carries food from the dwindling supplies in the cooler.
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Like the people they help, food pantries throughout southwestern Pennsylvania are struggling -- and in some cases, failing -- to make ends meet as skimpy federal food supplies, a tighter state budget, higher food prices and more needy clients strain resources.
Food banks around the region are reducing the number of fruits and vegetables they distribute, trimming or even eliminating expensive protein sources such as eggs and peanut butter from the boxes given to their clients, and in some cases, must consider scaling back their operations.
In Greene County, for instance, board members of the Waynesburg-based food bank, The Corner Cupboard, were spared Monday from slashing their food box distribution from monthly to bimonthly only after a last-minute $10,000 donation from natural gas drilling company EQT, according to board member John Jenkins.
"I don't want to tell people we don't have food for them, my God, but there's just nothing we can do right now," Mr. Jenkins said. "We've robbed Peter to pay Paul to try to stay afloat as it is."
Even with that donation, the food bank will be forced to consider cutting back its distributions in coming months to the more than 2,000 people it serves at 14 pantries, he said.
Throughout the region, the number of people seeking food assistance -- about a quarter of whom are children -- has increased steadily in recent years, according to food bank directors.
Local food banks, however, are receiving far less federal commodity food such as canned fruit, vegetables and meat from the federal government. The Corner Cupboard, for instance, received 177 cases of food this August compared to more than 400 in a typical month in 2010, according to its executive director, Jan Caldwell.
Meanwhile, the number of items sent by the federal government also has shrunk, area food bank directors say.
Last October, the Greater Washington County Food Bank, in Eighty Four, Pa., received 10 items to distribute to its 3,400 households, according to the food bank's executive director, Lisa Nuccetelli. But in February, she said, the food bank got just carrots and pears.
To fill such shortfalls, food banks typically use state money from Pennsylvania's State Food Purchase Program to buy food locally. But there, too, food bank directors are finding themselves squeezed, as the level of state money available to them dwindles.
In fiscal year 2012-13, funding of the state food purchase program remained level at just more than $17 million, according to Samantha Krepps, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
With less state money to supplement skimpy federal commodity shipments, food bank directors say they must make hard choices to make their funds stretch.
Food boxes in Washington County, for instance, now contain peanut butter only every other month, even though it's an important source of protein for children coming home from school, Ms. Nuccetelli said.
"It's one of the most expensive things for us to purchase, but it's also one of the most expensive things for families to purchase, and if you have more than one child a jar of peanut butter doesn't last very long," she said.
Tuna fish, once considered an affordable staple for families on a budget, has skyrocketed in price and is now seen as a prize when it is donated.
Some food banks, especially those in areas where businesses can afford to give generously, have fared better. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, for instance, still has adequate funds to meet its needs, officials there say.
But private donations in rural areas, with fewer big businesses to share the burden, are harder to come by.
In Greene County -- where contributions from groups and businesses such as the Presbyterian Church, coal mining company Consol Energy, and natural gas drillers such as Alpha Natural Resources and RG Johnson have partially filled the gap -- a huge shortfall remains, Ms. Caldwell said.
"The sky has fallen," she said. "It's not falling -- It crashed."
First Published September 15, 2012 12:04 am