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Brewster pledges to seek revenues for food bank

| Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

State Sen. James R. Brewster, D-McKeesport, told local advocates of ending hunger that he is taking their efforts seriously.

In an effort to learn more about the needs of his constituents, many of whom are living at or near the poverty level, Brewster visited Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank on Thursday to learn about the funding, volunteerism and outreach needed to serve the hungry.

Brewster heard from representatives of GPCFB as well as the Westmoreland County Food Bank, Just Harvest, Sonshine Community Ministries, the Urban League of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

“We are all part of a fabric of food banking in the United States,” GPCFB CEO Joyce Rothermel told Brewster as he sat down to a roundtable discussion on Pennsylvanians' need for food.

“I know it. I see it,” Brewster said. “You don't have to sell me on the concept because I know the work you've done in our area. There is an awful lot of need. When you're walking the street ... you can see poverty.”

Westmoreland County Food Bank CEO Marlene Kozak said her organization serves 12,000-15,000 people per month — having delivered more than 8 million pounds of food in 2010.

Kozak said distribution is heavy in high poverty areas such as New Kensington, Monessen and Jeannette, and other service areas are spread across the county in a lower density.

Spreading the word about poverty and hunger in communities where it's not a daily issue will be key in solving the problem, Kozak said.

“Most of the time, when people are educated on the issue, they support it,” she said. “Many people just don't know that there really is hunger in this country and in Pennsylvania.”

Brewster said Kozak's point is imperative when presenting this issue in state forums.

“I'm not sure that all of the people are as close to the issue, given where they're from,” Brewster said. “It's not that they're not benevolent people. They just don't have the same mindset.”

Too often, Brewster said, financial discussions become a matter of cutting back programs to save money.

“My pitch on this is not trying to get the focus on what they can cut in Harrisburg, but trying to get new revenue,” the senator said.

He cited establishing fair taxes for Marcellus Shale drilling and making wise choices in the distribution of gaming revenue.

James Manner of Crossroads Presbyterian Food Pantry in Monroeville joined Sharryl and Richard Kokoska of the Glassport Assembly of God Food Pantry in explaining to Brewster that much of their work depends on grants and donations.

Manner said Crossroads served 63 new families in 2010, a 66 percent increase from 2009.

“I see a lot of people who are just like me,” Richard Kokoska said. Glassport's pantry, like most others served by Greater Pittsburgh and Westmoreland food banks, offers diapers, canned goods, boxed foods and some fresh items. The Kokoskas said they want to expand the program to someday include a soup kitchen or other outreach programs, but they will need funds to do it.

“We depend on the grants,” Sharryl Kokoska said. “We are a shop-through pantry, and we like to see our shelves cleared when our (120 recipients) come in. We want to know we are feeding people.”

Rothermel said Thursday's discussion offered an interesting perspective on hunger action and awareness.

“We're used to looking at the service end of things, but that service can't happen without all this financial work,” she said.

GPCFB provides 2.2 million pounds of grocery products every month to 390 county, community and faith-based programs.

Brewster, who considers himself to be fiscally conservative, said the advocates should continue their push for hunger action funding at the state and federal levels.

“If we can't take care of our poor and our elderly, then we're not much of a state,” Brewster said. “Conservative or not, we are going to take care of the people who need to be taken care of.”

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