Customers shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal).
By Sheila Christopher
Pennsylvania’s charitable food network is overwhelmed.
Demand for food assistance remains above pre-pandemic levels, and new challenges continue to put a strain on food banks’ operations.
Higher fuel prices and inflationary costs are cutting into the limited resources food banks have to operate, especially amid years of chronic underfunding.
The rising cost of food is a significant hardship not only for individuals, but for services like ours that are trying to meet the growing demand of families who continue to struggle to put food on the table.
So, it wasn’t lost on any of us who dedicate ourselves to feeding hungry Pennsylvanians that the House of Representatives recently passed its version of a proposed budget with dramatic increases in the state’s food assistance programs.
Although it’s just one step in the complex process of crafting a final state spending plan, the legislative action proved our state leaders might finally recognize the epidemic that hunger has become across the commonwealth.
Under the House’s proposed budget, funding would increase for two of the state’s most important anti-hunger programs — the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP) line item would jump by more than $4 million to $24.1 million, and funding for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS) would nearly double, from $4.5 million to $7.5 million.
SFPP remains a lifeline for food banks across Pennsylvania, helping all 67 counties purchase and distribute food to low-income families and seniors. SFPP also helps food banks access federal food commodities and finance transportation and infrastructure improvements.
Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector, farm communities and food insecure residents all benefit from PASS, which redirects millions of pounds of Pennsylvania-grown agricultural products that might otherwise go to waste to organizations that provide nutritious meals.
Also, for the first time ever, the budget would provide $1 million to the Senior Food Box Program.
Hunger-Free Pennsylvania is the single largest provider of meals to older Pennsylvanians through the program, which we administer on behalf of the Department of Agriculture through our network of food banks serving all 67 counties.
Eligible seniors can choose to receive their monthly box via pick up, drive-through, or delivery from a program partner, including senior apartment complexes, senior community centers, and food pantries, or even DoorDash.
The House spending plan also would keep $500,000 to support the cost of distributing The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) commodities to counties, as well as the $1 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Development Program.
Hunger is something that knows no boundaries, no political affiliation.
In Pennsylvania, nearly 1 in 10 residents faces food insecurity. One in 8 children are food insecure. Hundreds of thousands of senior citizens qualify for the state’s meal delivery program but don’t receive that aid because of financial constraints.
There isn’t a single county in Pennsylvania without a family experiencing food insecurity. It’s a growing problem that demands a response of equal ambition, and this draft spending plan does that.
The budget blueprint developed by House Democrats passed on a party-line vote, 102-101, on Monday evening. The plan would increase spending by almost $1.4 billion above what Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed in March.
The governor’s plan held the line on both SFPP and PASS, while proposing a $16 million investment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to address food insecurity among seniors and people with disabilities.
Passage of the House measure is among the first steps in crafting a spending plan. The legislation now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate. The administration and General Assembly have until June 30 to work out a final budget before the state’s fiscal year ends.
We recognize that negotiations are ongoing, and we understand that everyone at the negotiating table has different policy priorities. But we hope everyone can find consensus in making sure Pennsylvania does all it can to fight hunger and ensure its most vulnerable residents have access to healthy, nutritious food.
Sheila Christopher is the executive director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania. She writes from Canonsburg, Pa.
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