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  • Writer's pictureHunger-Free Pennsylvania

Reading Eagle: Free food program for Berks County seniors underused

Eligible recipients receive a box of nutritious food each month.

June 26, 2019



Know a senior on a tight budget?

They might benefit from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, often called The Senior Box.

It is a free monthly package of nutritious food to help supplement the diet of low-income elderly people.

This federally funded program is similar to the Women Infants and Children program.

But unlike WIC, few people are aware of The Senior Box, which has been around for 50 years and in Pennsylvania since 2001, said Sheila Christopher, executive director of Hunger Free Pennsylvania, the statewide nonprofit that facilitates the Senior Box program through a network of 1,200 food shelves served by 17 distribution sites, including Helping Harvest.

Formerly called the Greater Berks Food Bank, its name was changed to Helping Harvest in May because it supplies food pantries in Berks and Schuylkill counties.

Christopher was in Berks County on Wednesday to promote The Senior Box program.

When the program came to Pennsylvania in 2001 it started in the western part of the state and just 5,000 seniors participated.

In 2010 Hunger Free Pennsylvania got enough federal funding to expand the program statewide. Today 36,000 seniors use the program, but 370,000 seniors in Pennsylvania are eligible.

"Half the people we serve live on less than $800 a month," Christopher said.

To qualify, seniors must be at least 60 and have a gross household income at or less than 130% of the federal poverty guidelines.

That would be $1,354 a month for a single senior or $1,832 a month for two seniors. Each qualifying senior in the home gets their own box.

The Senior Box comes with two boxes of cereal, two boxes of spaghetti noodles, juice, milk, peanut butter, and canned fruits and vegetables.

The box will get bigger in November when the government changes the contents.

Helping Harvest in Spring Township often gives produce and frozen foods to Senior Box recipients, said Peg Bianca, Helping Harvest executive director.

Currently 1,732 seniors in Berks and Schuylkill counties receive a Senior Box and 140 people are on the waiting list, which turns over pretty quickly, Bianca said.

Just over 400 recipients are in Schuylkill County because the rural areas make distribution a challenge.

The Senior Box gets into the hands of recipients in a number of ways.

Boxes go to senior apartment complexes where many recipients live. Many seniors pick up the boxes, but sometimes they forget, don't feel well or can't drive. And the box is hard for some to handle.

A distribution system would be better.

Helping Harvest would like to hear from service groups willing to help seniors connect with the monthly food boxes.

For seniors reluctant to receive the free food supplement, Bianca said they have earned it.

Christopher agreed.

"You worked for this," Christopher said. "These are your tax dollars at work for you. If you don't take it, the program will go away."

Contact Beth Brelje: 610-371-5022 or

Helping Harvest needs volunteers.

Helping Harvest would like to hear from service groups willing to help seniors connect with the monthly food boxes.

It could be operating a centrally located drive-thru where boxes could be put in cars, calling to remind seniors of the pick up day or ideally, delivering boxes to recipients in the same fashion as Meals on Wheels.

Helping Harvest would like to meet with any group interested in discussing ideas to improve senior access to the boxes.

Seniors who would would like to learn more about receiving the Commodity Supplemental Food Program's Senior Box should contact Helping Harvest.

Ask for Peg Bianca at 610-926-5802, extension 202.


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