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Food pantries sound call for more help

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 6:57 p.m.

In the Mon Valley and across Westmoreland County, more families are in need of food this holiday season, Westmoreland County Food Bank CEO Kris Douglas said.

“You do see more people utilizing across the board our pantries in the fall and winter months. They're concerned about being able to provide a holiday meal for their family,” Douglas said. “During the holiday season, we always do see an increase in the number of people enrolled, but this year it's been more pronounced.”

Three pantries in the Mon Valley feed about 550 families each month.

Two are in Monessen — the Salvation Army pantry at 308 Schoonmaker Ave. and the Schooner Food Pantry at Orchard Christian Fellowship, 721 Schoonmaker Ave.

In Belle Vernon, the Rostraver Council of Churches pantry is located at Fells United Methodist Church, 1268 Fells Church Road.

The Westmoreland County Food Bank delivers food to each of the three pantries for local distribution.

The shelves are stocked, but increases in need — up to 30 percent in some county pantries — are troublesome, Douglas said.

“We're doing OK, but we're really concerned about these big increases we're seeing,” he said. “That's only sustainable for so long.”

Each enrolled family receives a 65-pound food box, valued at about $90, per month. It includes meat, fresh produce, cereal, milk, bread and eggs, along with other items donated through food drives or purchased by the food bank. All Westmoreland County clients receive the same items.

If demand increases more, the food bank may have to cut back on the food boxes, but that hasn't happened yet, Douglas said.

The increases, he said, may be attributed to cuts in government funding. In addition, as the days grow colder, some families might need to buy home heating oil, an expense that evaporates in the summer months.

“(We see) more people getting into the colder time of the year,” he said.

Food bank staff work to incorporate fresh produce and nutritious foods, Douglas said.

Last year, the county food bank distributed 6.8 million pounds of food.

At Schooner Food Pantry, volunteers package the food into boxes and distribute it at a drive-thru, food pantry coordinator Cindy Soles said.

In November, every food item was picked up, she said, and volunteers had to order more food for December.

Local churches donated money, and Soles praised the food pantry volunteers.

“You have to have teamwork to make it work,” Soles said. “When you know that you helped somebody to have food on their table for them or their children, that's heartwarming.”

Of the county food bank's $3.4 million budget, about 60 percent comes from fundraising.

“Thankfully the residents of the county ... are our biggest supporters,” Douglas said. “It's those people sending in 10, 20, 30 bucks at a time who get us home. We try to be good stewards of their money.”

Hunger doesn't disappear Jan. 1, Douglas said. The food bank accepts donations of food and money.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or rskena@tribweb.com.

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