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Fay-West food banks need help

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, 2:01 a.m.

Food for the holidays might be a little lean for some residents in the Fay-West region.

“People take for granted that they will have mashed potatoes and a turkey, but so many will go without,” Mt. Pleasant Food Pantry director Michele Sechrist said. “If everyone would give just a little bit, it would make a big difference.”

The Westmoreland County Food Bank is owed more than $100,000 in federal funding, which is forcing officials to cut the amount of food given to the county's hungry.

The Delmont-based food bank never received its 2012 reimbursement for distributing federally-obtained produce through The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP.

Two weeks ago, the food bank received about $12,250 for October distributions — October 2011 that is.

“We have to make the food we can afford to purchase last longer,” Westmoreland food bank CEO Marlene Kozak said.

The Fayette County Community Action Food Bank in Uniontown has received some of its owed funding, but not all, and will not receive any further items from the USDA for the rest of the year.

“We received one item in October, but we will not receive any more for November or December,” food bank project manager Jamie Brink said, adding that the food bank usually receives large quantities of at least three fruits and vegetables monthly.

Brink added that the numbers are on a constant rise for families in need while the supplies of food dwindle.

“We used to give out three fruits and three vegetables every month, but we are not getting what we used to,” Brink said. “We saw 131 new households last month that are now in the picture and our USDA commodities are not coming in. We had to cut back on what we give out.”

The food pantry in Mt. Pleasant is seeing similar drops in the amount of food distributed each month.

“These cutbacks are definitely affecting us,” Sechrist said. “We haven't been receiving any peanut butter, which used to be a staple, and no cereal, which is something else that we used to always get. The amount of everything is down.”

The TEFAP program is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which buys surplus food from farmers to give to food banks. Typically, the Westmoreland County Food Bank is paid 12 cents per pound to distribute the food.

The money is funneled through the state Department of Agriculture to the county, which then disburses the money to the food bank.

Joe Quattrocchi, director of the state Bureau of Food Distribution, said the funding delay is the result of invoices that needed to be corrected. The invoices, which county officials said are prepared by the food bank, failed to reconcile the pounds of food distributed with the data provided by commercial food distributors, Quattrocchi said.

The invoices were corrected and payment through TEFAP was approved on Oct. 16. It usually takes about four weeks after approval for the recipient to get the funds, Quattrocchi said.

Kozak said the agriculture department's explanation is ridiculous.

“These are things that were turned in a year-and-a-half ago,” she said. “We want the money desperately. Believe me, if it were that easy we would have done it right away.

“Most of the food banks across the state aren't getting their money, or it's not coming in. It isn't just us.”

The Westmoreland food bank has cut the amount of food it gives people by about 10 percent this fall and it serves about 7,200 households each month. That's about 1,000 more than when the funding cuts began.

The cut was a result of the TEFAP funding delay and state funding reductions.

Over the past three years, the food bank's share funding from the State Food Purchase Program dropped by about $142,000, Kozak said.

Both the Westmoreland County Food Bank and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank are waiting on funding from another federal program known as the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

The delay is the result of legal review of the program, said Iris Valanti, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh food bank, which received $160,000 from the food and shelter grant last year.

“The period was from January and we still haven't received our money,” she said.

The money could be disbursed in the next few weeks, Valanti added.

Feeding the hungry is becoming less of a priority to officials even as it becomes more of a problem, Kozak said.

“For the past five, six years, we've been seeing government funding — both state and federal — shrinking,” she said. “The burden just keeps shifting down to providers of the service.”

Sechrist said she hopes people will again be generous this upcoming holiday season and give to food drives or host one to help area pantries and area families.

“If anyone is able to help for the upcoming holiday season we really hope they do,” Sechrist said. “We are really low on food donations. Items that we can use are cereals and potatoes and any kid-friendly items. We could also use canned fruits and vegetables.”

Sechrist said she thinks the days of her having food left over to help families throughout the month — other than at the regular monthly distribution — may be over.

“We ran out of food the last couple months,” Sechrist said. “Last month, I did have enough left over to fill four boxes, but I gave that to families who came in. I'm afraid it's going to continue this way.”

Marilyn Forbes is a freelance writer. Trib Total Media staff writer Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed to this report.

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