Food bank wants to use McKeesport school as program site
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is looking to grow its Produce to People program in McKeesport — a community where the service has been welcome for seven years and counting.
The food bank's distribution programs director Josh Murphy addressed McKeesport Area school directors during Wednesday's workshop to explain the program's successes and opportunities for growth by selecting the district's middle school as a distribution site to replace one in a downtown parking lot. The matter will be up for vote on April 24.
“The attempt is to try to service the McKeesport Area communities much better than they are currently being serviced through the food bank,” Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said. “I believe the choosing of Founders Hall was because of the ease of access. The cafeteria has wide doors, and it's on one level ... in a locked-in area so that you can't get into the remainder of the school.”
Serving 190 families on its slowest winter day in McKeesport to more than 800 families on its busiest day on Pittsburgh's South Side, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank promotes Produce to People as an opportunity to distribute healthy food and nutrition education to accompany it. Produce to People has served Mon Valley residents through a McKeesport distribution center since 2006 in order to provide fresh produce and other grocery items that can't be distributed through regular pantries.
“Our pantry system can't support all of that fresh produce,” Murphy said. “Our small church pantries don't have a place to store it.”
Produce to People is about more than distributing food — it's about teaching home cooks to use what they're given to its highest potential.
“We encourage people to go home and try new things with food,” Murphy said. “We have unfamiliar items, and we'll select volunteers who are familiar with working with those things.”
Using the kabocha squash as an example, Murphy said people could be intimidated by uncommon crops. But that person's outlook on a new food can change when presented with instructions like microwave the squash, take out the seeds and treat it like a sweet potato.
“It makes people comfortable cooking things within their own food culture,” Murphy said.
With the number of potential recipients, Produce to People encourages health and human service agencies to have a presence during distribution dates in order to increase public awareness of programs including Women Infants and Children, CHIP (Children's Medicaid) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
With food bank records showing at least 65 percent of McKeesport Area students qualifying for free or reduced lunches by federal standards — and district figures listing even more — there is potential for great impact in making Produce to People more convenient and streamlined in McKeesport.
“We actually have potential for growth,” Murphy said, noting the program was bumped outdoors after the Corpus Christi merger of three Catholic parishes in McKeesport. “In the middle of February, we're still outside in a parking lot feeding 500-600 families. This is going to give us the capability to get out of the cold weather.”
School director Terri Kisan asked how families can learn more about Produce to People, especially once it moves into Founders Hall.
Murphy explained that current pantries advertise Produce to People as a means to supplement their nonperishable items with fresh food. He said the program would welcome increased participants if the district would be willing to send information home with students.
“We'll prepare for a spike in service,” he said.
At any distribution site, Produce to People is open to any Pennsylvania family that signs a self-certification eligibility form. Requirements are parallel to or even less stringent than other assistance programs. Households that receive free or reduced school lunches, WIC, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits automatically qualify.
“The process is very low-barrier entry intentionally,” Murphy said. “Produce is perishable. It's something that we want to move out quickly. We're not dealing with federal commodities that require tons of paperwork.”
School director Trisha Gadson asked if McKeesport Area students will find community service opportunities in the Produce to People move.
Produce to People operates efficiently and welcomes new volunteers, Murphy said. He said McKeesport Area students are welcome to register for volunteer opportunities, especially on site in their own community.
McKeesport Area School District has a current partnership with Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Gabauer confirmed. Students volunteer throughout the school year at the food bank's headquarters in Duquesne.
More information about Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Produce to People is available online at www.pittsburghfoodbank.org.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.