Families are facing a food crisis; soon Pennsylvania’s food banks will, too | Opinion
By Russell C. Redding and Jane Clements-Smith
Christina, a single mom of two kids under the age of six, was laid off from her job at a medical practice soon after the coronavirus outbreak started. A month into the lay-off, the Cumberland County resident no longer had any money left in her savings and was still navigating the unemployment process.
Christina is just one of the numerous people – many for the first time – who receives help from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, a member of Feeding Pennsylvania, with putting food on the table during these hard times. Since early spring, Feeding Pennsylvania’s member food banks, along with the rest of the Feeding America nationwide network of 200 banks, have been at the frontlines of providing food assistance to help people like Christina weather unimaginable conditions: the largest U.S. public health crisis in a century, staggering unemployment numbers, and a 50-year high for grocery prices. While Gov. Wolf and the General Assembly stepped up to help fill the need this past summer by providing a much-needed influx of $25 million to our state food assistance programs, more help will be needed. As we continue serving the need throughout Pennsylvania, we are anticipating a major challenge that will make it harder to ensure no one goes hungry: a steep decline in food. Nationally, USDA food purchases of U.S. grown food make up around 30 percent of all food distributed by the Feeding America network of food banks and partner pantries and meal programs. This nutritious food helps member food banks provide families and individuals with enough to eat. USDA food is expected to decline by 50 percent next year. At the same time, the Feeding America network is experiencing a sustained 60 percent increase in demand for food, as the pandemic and economic downturn continue with no end in sight. Less food plus more need: this is an equation that translates to more people being turned away from food banks without the help they need. This devastating outcome can be avoided if the federal government revisits this cut to the amount of necessary and nutritious food we receive. Every year, the USDA helps to move billions of pounds of healthy food from farmers to food banks to families – helping to ensure produce, dairy, and other pantry staples don’t go to waste and, instead, fuel students for school and help cash-strapped families and seniors keep their plates full. In federal fiscal year 2019, that included the purchase of more than 158 million pounds of food produced right here in Pennsylvania – including apples, cheese, chicken, and mushrooms. However, under current policy, USDA will scale back food support for food banks to 79 million pounds, spelling disaster for the ability of Feeding Pennsylvania food banks to help our neighbors facing dire circumstances. There are few easy answers for decision-makers as they try to get us through this public health and economic emergency – but the problem facing Feeding Pennsylvania food banks is unique in that the answer is right in front of us. During a time of historic need, and when buying food is more expensive, the USDA has a critical opportunity to both support American agriculture and ensure food banks do not witness a dramatic decline in the food needed to support the millions of people we serve. Fewer parents choosing between keeping the lights on and buying groceries, fewer single parents skipping meals, and more people like Christina getting back on their feet is riding on whether our government seizes the opportunity. Russell C. Redding is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Jane Clements-Smith is executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania