Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
Combating hunger in our communities
Long winding food lines are not as visible as they were two years ago at the start of the pandemic, but hunger and food insecurity continue, affecting more families in Pennsylvania than most people realize.
According to Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap report, more than 1.54 million Pennsylvanians last year faced food insecurity, diminishing some of the gains made in previous years.
Many families, particularly the working poor, never recovered from the pandemic’s effect on their jobs, finances and savings. Others who were starting to get back on their feet are now reeling from the higher food prices of inflation. Hunger remains very real. In December, MediaNews Group reporter Mike Urban detailed the efforts of food pantries in Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties trying to keep up with demand.
In Chester County, for example, Andrea Youndt, CEO of the Chester County Food Bank, pointed to the high cost of housing as a driving factor in hunger. “There are a lot of people who work here who can’t afford to live here,” she said.
Those families may not be able to get help to pay their rent or mortgage, but if they can get free food, it allows them to meet those other expenses, Youndt said.
As the price of so many products has shot up in recent months — with produce costing at least 25% more, and even the cardboard boxes that food banks use for distribution getting more expensive — it has made things that much more difficult, she said.
The story is the same in Montgomery and Berks counties where food banks report increased demand that has not gone away even as the economy rebounds and COVID lessens its grip. They are looking for innovative ways to stretch food supplies.
In Montgomery County, one of the food banks dealing with the increased demand is expanding gardens to produce more fresh food. Established in 2015, Garden of Health is a non-profit food bank and community garden that serves Montgomery and Bucks counties and has more than 25 food pantry partners. Over the past 18 months, Garden
of Health has donated 6,500 pounds of produce for local distribution.
The state Department of Agriculture this week used Garden of Health’s Harleysville expansion site to announce Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to add $2 milllion to funding for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS).
“PASS connects the nonprofit sector to farms and food processors to help solve problems of hunger and food waste,” the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said in a release. “The program funds the harvest, transport, processing and packaging of surplus food from Pennsylvania farms that is either intentionally planted for donation or would otherwise go to waste.”
The food is distributed through a contract with Feeding Pennsylvania and a network of 13 regional, charitable food distributors, the information said.
“We started working with the PASS program in 2020,” said Garden of Health founder and COO Carol Bauer. “They reimburse us for the produce that we donate back to the food pantries. That money helps us recoup our costs here and allows us to continue to grow year after year.”
In 2020, Garden of Health distributed more than 200,000 pounds of produce that it grew or that was donated by farmers, Bauer said.
About 10,000 pounds of produce is raised per year at Garden of Health’s current one-acre garden, Bauer said. The nonprofit will be moving to an almost eight-acre property donated to Hatfield Township by Clemens Food Group, with work there beginning this summer or fall aiming to have the first food grown in 2023.
The work of PASS and Garden of Health are approaches to a critical need in our region. As part of the community, this newspaper’s holiday giving program Operation Holiday also donated $60,000 from reader contributions to 13 food pantries throughout the region.
In the rich bounty of this nation, no child should go to bed hungry. Programs like PASS and Garden of Health are aiming to make that a reality.