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  • Writer's pictureHunger-Free Pennsylvania

Hunger-Free Pennsylvania Turns 30

Hunger-Free Pennsylvania Executive Director Sheila Christopher has been volunteering or working for the organization almost as long as it has been around. Today, the association marks its 30th anniversary. In this piece, published by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Sheila offers her perspective of where we were then and where we are today in terms of fighting hunger in our communities.

Patriot News

Here's how you can help nearly 2M hungry Pennsylvanians: Sheila Christopher

May 20, 2014

By Sheila Christopher

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, a statewide anti-hunger organization that began partly in response to the incredible need our families faced shortly after the national recession peaked in 1983.

Thousands of hardworking men and women found themselves without a job and without prospects.

Our proud industrial heritage, built on the strength of steel, collapsed mightily when the mill doors slammed shut. Factory closures rippled across our entire economy. Our manufacturing base crumbled.

In Pennsylvania's great industrial cities --- Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown, Bethlehem, Johnstown, Steelton, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre --- unemployment rates reached double digits.

Nearly a quarter of residents in some communities were out of work. In Beaver County, unemployment actually peaked higher than during the Great Depression.

I joined Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, known then as the Pennsylvania Association of Regional Food Banks, in 1987 as a volunteer who helped to obtain and deliver healthy meals --- and maybe a bit of hope --- to some of our neediest residents. It was the only way some families were able to put food on the table. That was 27 years ago.

Although our commonwealth may not have recovered fully as we'd like, our state certainly has bounced back, our communities have remade themselves and our economy has transformed.

For those of us in the anti-hunger community, very little has changed, except the faces of those we serve. The challenges are just as great today as they were almost 30 years ago --- and in some cases, even greater.

In the 1980s, everyone rallied to help their hungry neighbors. Today, providing aid to those in need has become politically divisive. Nowhere is that more evident than in the battle over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, known better as "food stamps."

Last year, House and Senate Agriculture committee members finally ended a two-plus-year fight over the enormously complex farm bill.

The agreement was hailed by many as a victory. But it was hard to celebrate. The compromise included an $8 billion cut over 10 years to food-stamp funding, the most partisan issue in the 949-page bill.

Despite the reduction, many of us in the anti-hunger community still breathed a sigh of relief because it could have been worse --- a lot worse.

Republicans previously passed a bill that would have cut nearly $40 billion in spending from food stamps, and that came after a bill with $20 billion in cuts failed.

The number of people relying on food stamps increased dramatically during the most economic downturn, when unemployment jumped and jobs became scarce. Yet, the response during this recession was vastly different than it was 30 years ago.

Hunger became less a community epidemic and more a personal stigma. That wasn't always the case.

At the state level, a bipartisan group of lawmakers worked across the aisle to create the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP) during that recession in 1983, formally adopting it into law as Act 129 in December 1992. It became one of Pennsylvania's most important tools in the fight against hunger.

Today, that program is hampered by high demand and limited funding.

In 2006, the legislature set aside $18.75 million for SFPP, which is funded through the state Department of Agriculture.

Since then the funding has dropped to just $17.338 million, a woefully inadequate amount to keep up with rising costs and increased demand for services. The current state budget proposal keeps funding flat.

When you consider today's higher food costs compared to 2006, the reduction in SFPP is far more significant --- the program's buying power is diminished by 24 percent. That's like giving you 76 cents on the dollar.

Ignoring hunger and cutting the programs designed to help those in need doesn't change the fact that more than 1.89 million Pennsylvanians --- including nearly 560,000 children --- have no idea where they will find their next meal.

Yes, we need to work harder to address the root causes of hunger, like ensuring good jobs and access to healthy, affordable food.

But we can't forget the day-to-day struggles so many families face to put healthful food on the table.

Fighting hunger is a year-round battle. Let's hope the same spirit we found to help those in need 30 years ago endures today

Sheila Christopher is the executive director of Hunger Free Pennsylvania.

Click here to read this story on PennLive.

You can join Sheila Christopher and Representative Mike Sturla today, May 29 from 12pm-1pm on PennLive for a live Q&A. Click here to join the conversation.

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