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Funding cuts leave Armstrong food banks operating on 'wing and a prayer'

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Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, 1:11 a.m.
 

Demand at food pantries in Armstrong County is rising amid cuts in funding to feed the needy families.

“We're dealing with our monthly state money being cut in half,” said Ken Heilman, director of Armstrong County Community Action. “With more need and less money, we're doing this on a wing and a prayer.”

Community Action is the umbrella agency that buys and distributes food to the county's 19 food pantries. For the past two years, it has received state funding of $84,000 annually, down from the $168,000 it received in 2012.

Heilman said 1,700 families – which accounts for roughly 4,250 people, or about 6 percent of the county's population – receive monthly assistance from the food banks. That's an increase of about 425 people since last August.

“Unfortunately, the only explanation for the increase is that the economy hasn't fully recovered,” Heilman said.

A single person qualifies for assistance if he or she earns less than $17,505 a year. A family of four qualifies if household income is less than $35,775.

“People are coming in desperate and in tears,” said Robin Rainey, the agency's food bank director. “They're usually scared and embarrassed, but it's all right — we're here to help.”

State funding is Community Action's primary source of revenue, though it receives food donations from Wal-Mart and private contributions to bolster monthly distributions. It buys food in bulk from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and distributes it to pantries in the area.

Last year, the agency spent $82,500 to purchase about 116 tons of food. Each month, the agency buys about nine tons of food, which usually includes pasta and sauce, meat and fish, milk and cheese, produce and bread.

Heilman said they've been buying less food because of the funding cuts, but the donations from outside sources have enabled the agency keep its shelves stocked.

“We aren't totally at the mercy of one funding source. We stretch everything as far as we can because people need this service,” Heilman said. “But if we get cut any further, I don't know how we'd put that fire out.”

While those needing assistance has grown by 10 percent, Rainey said she wouldn't be surprised if the numbers continue to rise. She said there are probably many more eligible who have resisted looking for help.

“A lot of people have worked all of their lives and have never needed help before,” she said. “They're the ones who will let themselves go without, or who will wait until they're absolutely desperate before they come.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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