|Posted by Jim Byrnes, Director on November 26, 2014 at 4:45 PM|
Lehigh Valley, New Jersey food pantries continue to struggle following food stamp reductions
By Pamela Sroka-Holzmann | The Express-Times
on November 23, 2014 at 7:00 AM, updated November 25, 2014 at 11:59 AM
Food pantries and food banks that help feed the Lehigh Valley and northwest New Jersey's hungry say thousands continue to grapple with reduced federal funding for food stamps, which is making it difficult to keep shelves full throughout the holiday season.
Last year, those who qualified for food stamps had faced a reduction after a temporary benefit from the 2009 federal stimulus expired. It meant a 5 percent drop in the $80 billion-a-year federal program and about 20 fewer meals a month for a family of four, according to Feeding America, which makes up the largest network of food banks in the United States.
Throughout the next decade, another $8 billion is projected to be cut to food stamps after the U.S. Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 2014.
That's troubling to food pantry and food bank directors, who say ever since the cuts they've been playing catch-up to try to meet the increased demand for food.
"Every week, I apply for a family whose wage-earner was laid off some time ago and either has not found another job or has found work -- but at a lower wage than they were earning before their layoff," said Kathryn Hoffman, supplemental nutrition assistance program outreach coordinator for Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania.
"And the cost of rent, food, health care, transportation and utilities does not decrease, so lower- to middle-class families in our area and all over the country are struggling."
In Pennsylvania, 1.8 million people receive food stamps and an estimated 87 percent of those households include a child, an elderly person or a person with a disability, Hoffman said. That includes 8 percent of the population in Northampton County receiving food stamps and another 10 percent in Lehigh County receiving food stamps.
Hoffman fears the cuts could mean some people deciding whether to pay their mortgage or put food on the table.
"The second cut to food stamps, though smaller due to the anti-hunger SNAP advocates in Congress, will still hurt," she said.
The Rev. Frank Fowler, pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, said the church's pantry has been having a difficult time meeting an increased demand for food.
As a result, the church already has canceled its annual Christmas drive after seeing a record turnout for Thanksgiving baskets. Both monetary and food donations have dwindled this year, coupled with the tough economy and food stamp reduction.
"We are just getting by," Fowler said.
The church in September had provided food for a record 1,300 people and exceeded that record in October, serving another 1,400 people. In the first week of November, 151 families had already requested food -- an increase of 20 percent, Fowler said.
The church had planned to hand out 450 Thanksgiving meal baskets on Friday.
Ellen Potter, who runs the 3-year-old Easton Area Society of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry with her husband, Dennis, said she has seen an estimated 20 percent increase in those in need this year over last year.
"There are people laid-off, those out of work," she said. "About a third to half of our clients work, but some work part-time with no benefits and others even work two part-time jobs with no benefits."
NORWESCAP Food Bank Director Helene Meissner said an estimated 4,200 food baskets filled with turkeys and fixings were distributed this year for families for Thanksgiving. She expects the Phillipsburg-based organization to have to collect for another 400 baskets at Christmas.
In the past year, the food bank that services Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties provided 2.2 million pounds of food to 120 charities. In recent years, major national donors, which include several food manufacturers, have pulled out, making it difficult for the organization to keep shelves stocked, Meissner said.
She said local donors have been the saving grace.
"It's been bad when there's less coming through and we find ourselves having to purchase more food -- that's a real budget-buster," Meissner said. "We really never know what we're going to get until the truck pulls in."
Diane Elliott, executive director at New Bethany Ministries in Bethlehem, also is feeling the crunch.
This year, there has been an increase of 30 percent more food baskets than last year for the elderly. Senior citizens, Eliott said, are already on fixed incomes and are struggling with the food stamp reduction.
New Bethany needs 400 Thanksgiving turkeys this year, and to date, only has received 200 turkeys and minimal fixings to go along with the meals. Elliott fears the organization won't be able to meet the same need after Thanksgiving.
"We've seen a huge increase," Elliott said. "And after Thanksgiving, people don't realize we are still in need."
Meeting the demand
Nazareth Area Food Bank Director Jim Byrnes said reliance on donors is key.
Major supporters of the food bank include the Nazareth Ministerium, a decades-old group of area church pastors and their congregations; several Boy Scout troops across the Nazareth area; and schools and civic groups.
Nazareth-area Scouts participate in a national collection each year, which helps stock the shelves of the food bank. That collection is the largest influx of food the food bank receives, Brynes said. This year, Scouts contributed 12,000 pounds of food.
The food benefits 330 families and individuals with two grocery bags for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"We rely entirely on donations of food and dollars," Byrnes said.
Food bank patrons in Nazareth also have been feeling the food stamp cuts, he said, noting many can't find full-time employment with benefits. On top of that, prices for subsidized lunches have increased in the Nazareth Area School District.
"There's a trend toward part-time jobs and that means no benefits, minimum wage or a little bit better," Byrnes said. "For young families, in particular, that makes it harder for them to make their ends meet when they are paying for their kids' medical, clothing, rent and fuel for keeping the place warm. Food tends to fall off the edge."
Ann McManus, director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania, said participation at emergency pantries nearly tripled in the last 12 years from about 17,000 in 2002 to 48,000 this year. The organization warehouses food for about 200 agencies and shelters across six Pennsylvania counties.
"We're hopefully optimistic that the generosity of our donors will help cover the needs of our neighbors," McManus said.
But Nancy Walters of Forks Township, who formed the Easton Hunger Coalition in April, said there also needs to be community outreach to help alleviate hunger. The organization helps 11 food pantries in the Easton area with a main goal of spreading awareness.
"We have a strong group working on advocacy because without advocacy for change, we will continue to rely on emergency food distribution -- which is not the long-term answer -- but is of course a necessity," she said.
Find out more about area food banks:
Easton Area Society of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry: 610-253-3553, ext. 50.
Nazareth Area Food Bank: 610-365-8869 or nazarethareafoodbank.org.
New Bethany Ministries Food Bank in Bethlehem: 610-691-5602, ext. 34 or newbethanyministries.org.
NORWESCAP Food Bank: 908-454-4322 or norwescap.org.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania in Allentown: 610-434-0875 or shfblv.org.
Trinity United Methodist Church Lords Pantry in Hackettstown: 908-852-3020.
GIVE HELP, GET HELP
• The Easton Area Society of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, 841 Washington St., makes food available to families from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of the month. There is a need for cold cereal, pasta, jelly, tuna fish and hearty soups. Since most clients rely on food stamps, which can only be used for food products, Potter said there often is a need for soaps, paper products, toiletries and laundry detergent.
• Food from the Nazareth Area Food Bank is distributed on the second Tuesday and following Wednesday of every month and by appointment at the food bank, 529 S. Main St. Most-needed items include peanut butter and jelly, baked beans, cans of tuna fish and boxes of macaroni and cheese.
• At New Bethany Ministries, 333 W. Fourth St., Bethlehem, Thanksgiving baskets are distributed by appointment. Donations are accepted 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Most-needed items include mashed potato mix, stuffing, gravy, brown sugar, cranberry sauce, pies and, more generally, peanut butter, canned vegetables, canned meats, macaroni and cheese boxes, instant rice, soups, cereals, pasta and pudding, as well as toiletries and baby items. Single bed blankets and pillows also are needed.
• At NORWESCAP, 201 N. Broad St., Phillipsburg, food is distributed to various agencies across Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties. Donations are accepted 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon Friday and Saturday. Most-needed items include beef stew cans, peanut butter, soups, chili cans, pasta, canned fruits and vegetables and hams, turkeys and small chickens.
• At Trinity United Methodist Church Lords Pantry, 213 Main St., Hackettstown, food is distributed from 9 a.m to noon Monday to Thursday. Items needed include canned meats, peanut butter, pasta boxes and canned vegetables.