The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank continues to put food on the tables of people in need across the region—with the number of families served growing every month because of an economy riddled with layoffs, unemployment benefits running out and other economic challenges.
Iris Valanti, public relations director at the food bank, said the group serves about 120,000 people per month, and each month this year there were about 3,500 new clients.
“We are seeing the results of some layoffs and unemployment and also underemployment—people making less wages or working part-time,” Valanti said. “The economy has definitely made a difference.”
In 2009, the food bank was serving 1,500 new families a month; in 2010, that number grew to 2,500 new families per month.
“I read the other day that half of Pennsylvania’s unemployed people have run out of unemployment benefits,” Valanti said. “People have hit that wall.”
Add budget cuts to the food bank’s finances, and it’s been a tough couple of years for the organization overall.
“Money is tight, but our community has been wildly supportive,” Valanti said. “People share what they have and have been very generous. Currently, we are meeting financial goals as much as we can, but food goes out as fast as it comes in—we are hanging in there.”
Donated food from distributors is diminishing because of the rising cost of gas in a shaky economy. Food banks now need to buy more food.
“We are buying 35 [percent] to 40 percent of food now,” Valanti said. “The downside of that is we have to raise more money—the upside is we can buy more healthy food and buy large quantities at a good price to make our donations go as far as possible.”
Food Pantry in Wexford partners with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. On the second Thursday of each month, it distributes food to individuals who need food assistance.
Every year, the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas show a spike in donations. There’s more awareness about hunger, and people continue to remember those who don’t have everything they want at this time of year.
“It’s the giving season, and also a lot of people save donations for the end of the year,” Valanti said. “We appreciate people thinking about us, but it’s nice when they think about us in January and February as well. Sitting down for a monster Thanksgiving dinner certainly reminds you that not everyone has that.”
After the holidays, that support slows down but is countered with year-round corporate donations and support. Valanti said there are many ways people can help whether it’s the holidays or the middle of a summer month.
“The great thing about it is everyone has a part to play in eliminating hunger in our region,” she said. “If they don’t have money, they can give time. People organize benefits and events. It’s not just about writing your own check. It’s about giving on an ongoing basis.”
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has more than 10,000 volunteers a year—all of whom are needed. Every little bit counts, Valanti said.
“We have kids running food drives, lemonades and flea markets because they want to do something,” she said.
The top food donations needed include peanut butter, tuna fish and high-protein canned items.
Heading into 2012, the challenges remain the same, all stemming from the status of the economy and restraints in government funding.
“Everyone is in their deficit-cutting mood, and a lot of programs are on the block—18 percent of our support comes from grants and programs, and that’s not a lot, but it means something,” Valanti said. “We lost $130,000 in emergency services grants from the county, which is also federal, but that’s a lot of money.”
The main obstacle: filling those gaps with new areas of financial support.
“Our challenge is maintaining and replacing government support and general factors of the economy that will bring us even more clients,” she said.