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Westmoreland area food banks push to meet increased demand

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:39 p.m.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories updating issues from the past year. The stories will appear daily, except Sunday, through the end of the year.

The number of people seeking assistance at food pantries in the 15068 ZIP code rose by 100 in November and December, up about 11 percent from prior months.

Whether that growth is the result of a recent outreach effort by the Westmoreland County Food Bank or the consequences of client holiday spending and federal food stamp cuts, or some combination, is still under review.

Earlier this year, Food Bank officials at the Delmont headquarters began a two-year outreach program to contact people in the New Kensington, Arnold, Lower and Upper Burrell areas who are eligible for, but are not using, this area's eight food pantries.

The program was sparked by a study that revealed that nearly 4,000 households in this area are eligible for food assistance, but only 915 families visit the pantries each month.

An initial outreach effort had started in 2009 with a mailing to 1,900 households in the Jeannette area that the county food bank had identified as eligible but not availing themselves of the assistance. As a result, food pantries in that area added nearly 400 new households as clients.

After a 2011-12 outreach to 2,300 underserved households in the Mount Pleasant area, 442 more households began receiving food assistance there.

Texie Waddell, the county food bank's director of agency services and programs, said she is hoping for a similar response from the letters mailed to 3,300 potentially eligible households in the 15068 ZIP code.

“The numbers so far are pretty much running as the other areas had,” Waddell said.

Waddell said the food bank has handled calls directly from potential clients who received the outreach letters. And because the mailing made recipients aware of the income guidelines and procedures, people may have chosen to contact a pantry directly to become new clients.

“We're not going to know totally until afterward and we run some numbers,” Waddell said. “It's hard to pinpoint what increased and at what time, since we see an increase at this time of the year, anyway. But the increase is at least in part from the outreach.”

So far, she said she's filled out forms for about 20 households that received letters from the food bank that indicated they could be eligible to partake of its services based on their gross income. Waddell then sends those forms to the pantries, and the new clients sign them on the day of the food distribution.

The 20 potential new clients to whom Waddell spoke were dispersed to the most convenient food pantry for them, depending on location or food distribution schedule.

Andrea Guido, coordinator of the food pantry at United Presbyterian Church in Parnassus, said she received about seven new enrollees from Waddell over the past three months. But the amount of new clients who haven't mentioned receiving an outreach letter has increased also, she said.

“The outreach hasn't really spiked our numbers yet,” Guido said. “I think probably the cuts in food stamps will contribute since it's happening the same time, plus it being winter with the holidays and heating bills adds stress to it. All the factors together will give it a jump.”

The federal government in December reduced the amount of food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), families receive. This was in accordance with a previously scheduled timetable within the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Early in 2014, a separate round of SNAP funding cuts may occur as a result of the recently passed federal budget.

Waddell said area pantries have capacity to assist more clients, and the food bank would study new pantry locations if that becomes necessary.

She said a second phase of the direct-mail outreach program begins in the first half of 2014 when a survey will be distributed, asking recipients if they are aware of food pantry services and whether they'd likely use them.

“Generally, we're ensuring that if they were in need they would know where to go,” Waddell said. “We're not trying to force people to take services.”

She said some callers prefer not to use pantries at their own churches out of embarrassment.

“We can always find somewhere else for them to go,” she said. “But the income eligibility is there for a reason. Don't feel too proud to take advantage of it.”

Waddell said many of the calls she has received, mostly from senior citizens, are touching.

“They say this letter definitely came at such a great time because they are feeling a crunch in expenses and they'd like to see if they can get help,” Waddell said. “It really cements why we're doing this.

“It helps us in our vision to end hunger.”

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