Pittsburgh-area food banks see greater need in tough economy
Volunteer Lindsay Mobrey of Robinson prepares a take-out order Thursday at the Sto-Rox American Legion Post 618's 10th annual free Thanksgiving dinner in McKees Rocks. Volunteers served about 600 dinners, including home delivery to seniors in the community. Many business and restaurants donated the food and money to make the dinner possible.
Mary Jane Ehrler, 89, of Brighton Heights, center, greets the Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey during a Thanksgiving turkey give-away Wednesday, presented by the Max Starks Hometown Team and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank at Stage AE on the North Shore. Patty Van Dillen, left, is the special events coordinator for the food bank.
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Some of the people who had been donors to the food pantry at Northside Common Ministries are now coming for assistance themselves, director Jay Poliziani said.
The recently out-of-work and those whose unemployment benefits have run out are swelling the numbers of individuals and families who are seeking help with nutrition needs, he said.
Northside Common Ministries, a nonprofit supported by 30 local churches, operates a men's shelter and food pantry on Pittsburgh's Brighton Road.
The good news is that November and December are two months when southwestern Pennsylvanians go all-out to organize local drives that help food banks, local pantries and shelters restock their shelves.
"When families sit down to a tableful of food at this time of year, many can't help but think of people who might not have the same benefits," Iris Valanti said. She is director of communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne.
Local Rotary clubs, schools, Scout troops, groups of professionals like chiropractors and companies organize 50 to 60 drives each month, she estimated.
Her nonprofit agency, in turn, distributes food to more than 400 food-assistance agencies spread across 11 counties. In addition to shelters and pantries, recipients include after-school programs and senior centers, Ms. Valanti said. Those organizations serve about 120,000 each month.
A higher home-heating bill or a minor medical emergency can be enough to send a family over the financial edge, she said. As a result, food assistance agencies have been seeing about 3,000 new clients each month.
That increase in demand has not been limited to traditionally poorer communities and urban areas.
Jimmy Stebler, a volunteer with the North Hills Food Bank, said numbers have been rising there in recent months.
In October, the North Hills Food Bank assisted 245 families. That number is up more than 40 percent from a year ago, he estimated. "They're people who have just gotten laid off, or they had several part-time jobs and they are getting fewer hours," he said of the new clients. "There are a lot of people who are middle class and middle-aged."
The North Hills Food Bank, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays, is on Perry Highway in Ross.
Like other pantries, the North Hills operation has benefited in recent weeks from food drives.
"Thanksgiving is probably our best time for donations," Mr. Stebler said.
The leanest times can come in the summer, when schools are not in session, and fewer groups schedule food drives.
Food-assistance agencies also welcome cash, which they can use to buy staples.
"We always get a lot of canned corn and green beans," Mr. Stebler said. Cash gifts can be used to expand the menu choices to things like beets, potatoes, jelly and pie filling.
Many food pantries also seek to provide items like toilet paper and diapers that cannot be purchased with food stamps.
There are as many as 300,000 "food-insecure" people among the 2.4 million who live in the 11 counties served by Greater Pittsburgh, Ms. Valanti estimated. Being "food insecure" means not having regular access to enough safe and nutritious foods to live a normal, healthy life, she said.
Information on organizing food drives or making tax-deductible donations is available at www.pittsburghfoodbank.org. Click on "Donate" or "Get Involved."
First Published November 23, 2012 12:00 am