New state grant tackles food insecurity, environmental issues
By Brian Myszkowski Posted Nov 27, 2019 at 4:55 PM
A new state grant program is aiming to tackle food insecurity and environmental issues together, and local institutions such as the West End Food Pantry could see some incredible benefits from the initiative.
Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced that it would begin accepting applications for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s new Food Recovery Infrastructure Grant Program, which will provide financial assistance to eligible nonprofit organizations, such as shelters and food banks for proper food management.
The program, funded through the state’s Recycling Fund, will allow for grants of up to $200,000 for nonprofits to purchase refrigerators, freezers, refrigerated vehicles and other equipment that can help preserve food for those in need which might otherwise end up in a landfill.
And that focus on preventing waste was not incidental, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said, but a matter of primary concern.
“Access to fresh food in under-served communities is a public health and quality-of-life issue, but it’s also an environmental justice issue. While traveling across the state, my staff and I often hear from under-served communities that access to fresh food is a significant concern, so we wanted to do our part to address this issue in a meaningful, environmentally focused way,” McDonnell said. “Nonprofit organizations, such as food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters, provide critical sustenance to those in need, so it’s critical that the food they provide is properly transported and stored.”
Food waste is a significant issue throughout the country, and a focal point of the DEP’s Climate Action Plan. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2015, about three quarters of all food waste – approximately 30.3 million tons – went to landfills, making up a quarter of all solid waste at those facilities.
With proper storage and transportation equipment, at least some of that waste could have been saved and distributed to those in need, all the while reducing greenhouse gas emissions that could have harmful effects on the environment.
“Protecting food and preventing food waste is also an important way to reduce landfill waste and address climate change, as rotting food produces methane, a strong greenhouse gas,” McDonnell said. “This funding will help nonprofits afford the necessary equipment to transport and maintain food items so that they can not only continue their efforts to help those in need but also reduce and prevent food waste.”
Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said that the grant will help strengthen the bonds between local food pantries and banks and the community members and associations that keep them afloat with contributions.
“Our agriculture community and charitable food network work together every day to keep Pennsylvanians from going hungry,” Redding said. “These grants will supplement their generosity and help ensure that food donations get safely to those who need them.”
Interested nonprofits will have to provide DEP proof of their not-for-profit status, the organization’s financial stability and an existing food utilization or distribution program, experience operating such a program, current and potential sources for food acquisitions under the program, and evidence that they can operate the program for the length of the grant demonstration period.
In order to qualify for the program, members of nonprofits must first meet with their DEP Regional Planning and Recycling Coordinator to apply. The grant application deadline is set for April 24, 2020.
The initiative will allow for nonprofits to expand their offerings in their communities as well. West End Food Pantry executive director Karena Thek, who will be applying for the grant, said that new refrigeration equipment would allow for more fresh and frozen options that the pantry previously had to turn down.
“We could really use some commercial walk-in refrigerators and freezers that take pallets,” Thek said. “I do believe there is some ability for us to grow and be able to take more of those refrigerator/freezer items, plus the fresh produce that quickly spoils at room temperature. I really want to concentrate on that type of growth for the West End Food Pantry.”
That chance for expansion comes at a dire time for pantries in the West End and beyond. Thek noted that on Saturday, the West End Food Pantry served 337 families in just three hours – a record that eclipsed last year’s high water mark of 324 families.
“Everybody keeps telling me, ‘The economy is good, the economy is good,’ except that the working poor and those below the poverty level,” Thek said. “It’s not good for them. It hasn’t improved, and in some cases, they have sunk lower. We have been growing significantly even within the last couple of months.”
While some visitors to the pantry may see the bulk of food available and think that the community’s needs are being met, Thek said that people must understand that expanded options for storage are quickly becoming a necessity for nonprofits in need.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand how much food we are saving and bringing into our doors to hand out to people in need,” Thek said.“The food that they see in our center is sometimes seen to be excessive, but people really need to know that the food would have ended up in a landfill. Why not take it and give it out?”
Thek said that while she had previously acknowledged the pantry’s role in reducing waste, she only recently found out how significant the impact could be on the environment in the long term, especially when it comes to limiting greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, altogether, the Food Recovery Infrastructure Grant could be an invaluable opportunity to tackle fundamental issues with hunger and pollution, benefiting the community as a whole.
“I tend to focus on the hungry people, but this grant shows us that there are lots of issues we can help with,” Thek said.