Growing hunger in Pgh area

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To some, the recommended three meals a day is just an everyday, run of the mill occurrence, but to many others, three meals a day is a luxury, especially in a struggling economy.

According to the Feeding America website, a nonprofit organization working to end hunger, in 2009, 50.2 million individuals in the United States lived in food insecure households, 21.3 percent of those households had children and 24.9 percent of the 50.2 million were Black non-Hispanic households. Food insecurity is a lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times.

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A HELPING HAND—Staff and volunteers of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distribute food in McKeesport to those in need. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“The number of people participating in food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs) as it is now called, in Allegheny County is 159,118, that’s 13 percent of the population,” said Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, a local non-profit advocacy group. “That is up 7 percent in the year and has gone up every month for the last 43 months in a row.”

While the issue of adults, seniors and most importantly children going hungry is becoming a problem that is worsening due to a continuous recession, an increasing unemployment rate and detrimental federal and state budget cuts, there are several programs and organizations working to put a dent in hunger and feed America with a healthy diet.

Iris Valanti, director of communications of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said that the food bank distributes approximately 2 million pounds of food per month and serves 11 counties in the Southwestern Pennsylvania area. Along with their distributions, the food bank also partners with more than 400 agencies, such as the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, after school programs, shelters and pantries. According to the PGCFB’s website, they distribute 21 million pounds of food per year.

While most think it is just low-income individuals taking advantage of the food bank and what it offers, Valanti said, “Hunger is not only concentrated to poor areas and it is not necessarily starvation, food insecurity is damaging to the community. Due to the recession a lot of middle class homes are also being served.” She added that she is interested in whether there will be an increase in the fall due to the number of teachers who have been laid off due to budget cuts. “(We see) 2,000 to 2,500 new households each month. Some is from outreach, us finding individuals who may have always needed it and not received the help and some is recession related.

“There is two parts to our (the food bank’s) mission, one is to distribute food, and two is to mobilize the public by raising awareness through special events and also through our advocacy program,” Valanti said.

The advocacy program encourages change in public policy and encourages people to write their congressman.

With the summer season here, the GPCFB has now begun its farm stand program, which distributes fresh fruits and vegetables to residents of the community at lower costs than most grocery stores. It is similar to a farmer’s market, but instead of the farmers bringing the food to residents, the GPCFB does it.

“We put the stands in communities that have little to or no access to fresh foods,” she said. “They (the farm stands) are open to the public and accept food stamps, cash and coupons from the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Programs.”

Seniors are also a large portion of the GPCFB’s participants. Valanti said many seniors not only worry about food, but they also have to worry about rent and expensive medical care costs, like insurance and medication.

Along with hunger being a problem with adults and seniors, it is extremely debilitating to children. “Kids don’t just need food, they need healthy foods,” Valanti said. She explained that in children, not having nutritious food can cause developmental problems.

The GPCFB is not the only one concerned about kids going hungry. Since June 13, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services has continued its Summer Food program, which provides children ages 18 and under with both breakfast and lunch at various neighborhood sites throughout the county.

Sally Petrelli, of the county DHS, said “We serve approximately 4,000-5,000 meals a day at approximately 100 sites.” She added that more sites will be added as the summer continues. Locations can be found on the DHS website under the SummerFood program.

Petrelli said the summer can bring a burden to many parents. Either parents may not have the means to provide all three meals during the summer, especially when they are used to only having to provide one during the school year because the other two are provided at school or it is hard to transport their children to various sites to eat. That is why the program is scattered at various sites around the county.

One thing Petrelli said she has observed is children ages 3 to 12 years old seem to be the major demographic. She said it is in part due to younger children not being able to come by themselves and their parents not bringing them for whatever reason and that children over 12 tend to be embarrassed or worried that they will look uncool and be teased by their friends or peers.

Valanti said that to help curb the increasing hunger issue individuals can support it by holding food drives, supporting special events; or simply donate money. For more information on food services at the GPCFB, call 412-460-FOOD.

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