Food bank grows to meet increasing needs of the working poor

Friday, May 04, 2001 - Updated: 12:01 am
Patricia Bartos, Senior Staff Writer
When the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank
began operation 20 years ago, it distributed 1 million
pounds of food a year to a network of 15 member
agencies. From the very beginning, those numbers
increased steadily.

Today, the operation processes more than 1 million
pounds each month for 351 agencies ? food pantries,
soup kitchens and shelters throughout 11 counties in
southwestern Pennsylvania.

The food bank moved from meeting immediate
emergency needs to providing long-term strategies to
serve chronic food needs.

?Our hope and dream always is that we won?t have
people needing these services,? said Joyce Rothermel,
executive director.

?But the reality seems to be that over 20 years, with
economic cycles, changes in government policy and in
the private circumstances of individuals, there is a
continuing need.?

The needs are escalating and, increasingly, the
families are those of the working poor.

Statistically, one in seven children under age 12 in
Allegheny County is hungry or at risk of hunger. In the
city of Pittsburgh the figures are one in four. Among
senior citizens, the figure is 17 percent.

?Our growth over 20 years has mirrored the growing
disparity of wages in this country,? Rothermel said.

She pointed to a new bill in Congress, co-sponsored by
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., proposing an increase in the
$10 minimum for food stamps ? established in 1977
? to $25.

?This is more practical. It will be a boon for seniors,?
she said.

Rothermel traces the modern food bank concept to
1968 when the St. Vincent de Paul Society opened one
in Phoenix, Ariz., to channel the abundance of excess
food to the needy.

?We know that a lot of food is wasted in this country,?
Rothermel said. ?We channel it. We?re a community

"Hopefully we?re flexible enough to be attentive to the
needs that arise. We want to be part of a solution.?

She just returned from a regional meeting of food bank
operations which focused on the growing relationship
between food banks and state governments.

As the process known as devolution continues,
resources and responsibilities are increasingly pushed
to the state level.

?We?re getting to know and work with the state
legislators and agriculture departments,? she said.

?We?ve enjoyed a wonderful relationship in
Pennsylvania since 1983 when the state?s food
purchase program began across the state to provide a
strong safety net when people?s circumstances cause
them to have a need.?

The Pittsburgh Community Food Bank opened in
Pittsburgh?s Hill District in June 1980 with 2,000 square
feet on the second floor of the St. Vincent de Paul
Society warehouse.

A year later the operation relocated to a larger
warehouse on the city?s South Side and by 1984 it
moved again, to McKeesport, where it became the
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

A year ago it relocated yet again, to the new 94,000
square-foot warehouse and office headquarters at 1 N.
Linden St. in Duquesne.

New programs also took off. The Three Rivers Table
picks up excess prepared foods from caterers,
restaurants and hospitals and delivers them to feeding

Green Harvest provides fresh produce through
gleaning and community garden projects. The Farm
Stand Project enables farmers to set up produce
stands in low-income inner-city neighborhoods.

As member agencies grew, so did the food bank?s
volunteer network.

?I believe our volunteers are the heart of our
organization, said Ivy Ero, volunteer coordinator.

Some 1,100 men, women and young adults help to
process 350,000 to 400,000 pounds of products each
month ? almost half of the products processed by the
food bank.

?We could never do it without them,? she said.

They sort through damaged goods, break down
50-pound sacks of flower and 1,000-pound cartons of
cereal and pasta into family size portions.

?Our volunteers must categorize, box, label and place
these goods on inventory,? Ero said.

Volunteers from St. John Neumann in Franklin Park are
a mainstay. They come one weekday and one Saturday
each month. Monumental Baptist Church comes
monthly. They are among 15 to 20 church groups who
come on a regular basis.

Others rally to help when the food bank has an
abundance of product. They will be needed in the wake
of the month-long Scouting for Food drive, which began
April 16.

?We?ll see a couple of million pounds of product from
this,? Ero said. ?We?ll be asking a lot of our churches
and food assistance organizations to send volunteers.?

Those volunteers are in good hands. Each volunteer is
trained to the task at hand by a supervisor who reviews
guidelines, and they work under direct supervision of
staff members.

?Raising awareness is key,? Ero said. The orientation
includes a tour of the facility and a talk on issues of
hunger and homelessness. ?We would not be doing
our job it we did not make them aware.?

Youngsters ages 12 and older can volunteer. They also
get an introduction before they hit the packing floor. ?We
want to get rid of misconceptions,? Ero said.

?I tell the kids to remember one thing from their visit. If
just one thing touches their heart, they?ll be aware of the

?We need volunteers,? she said. ?Even if it?s just one
hour a month, they can turn out a lot of finished

Call Ivy Ero at 412-460-3663, ext. 211 to

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