Most of us have connected with food pantries at some point. Maybe you volunteered to sort food, stock shelves or hand out turkeys at Thanksgiving. Perhaps you've donated non-perishable items during a food drive.
Helping people access a fundamental need feels good and it's the right thing to do. That's why so many school, scout and youth groups involve kids in food drives. It cultivates the values we want them to develop— generosity, kindness, empathy— and introduces them to the immense charitable food network we've built in Pennsylvania.
Needing food, however, is not a comfortable feeling, but suddenly many who have given at food pantries are themselves in need.
Lifesaving COVID-19 mitigation efforts have put hundreds of thousands of self-sufficient Pennsylvanians out of work and in the uncomfortable position of worrying about feeding their families.
They wonder, Do I spend my last money on food, or keep the power on? How many people can share a single cup of noodles and still call it a meal? How much longer can I stretch the food I have?
This is food insecurity. It is unexpected, out of your control and, too often, coupled with a reluctance to seek help.
Maybe you are embarrassed, you believe others are more deserving, or you remember another time you needed food assistance and you don't want to go back to that. So, you go it alone and make do with less and less.
But you don't have to. Pennsylvania's multifaceted charitable food system has enough for everyone who needs a seat at the table.
COVID-19 has created a broad community of need. The charitable food system was designed for times like these. We've adapted the system in a number of ways to better serve you, right now:
- Referrals. Individuals applying for Unemployment Compensation now receive an email and print letter in both English and Spanish to connect applicants with food and resources
- Job loss. Pennsylvanians without pay or with significantly reduced hours as a result of COVID-19 are eligible to receive state and federally sourced foods from Pennsylvania's food banks and pantries without completing cumbersome paperwork and income verification requirements to prove that they are eligible for the food.
- Meals for students. The Pennsylvania Department of Education received approval from the USDA to allow schools to distribute meals to all children at no cost while closed due to COVID-19.
- Soup kitchens and senior centers are allowed to offer meals as curb side pick-up.
- SNAP benefits have been expedited. Those eligible for expedited service have benefits issued in five days.
- Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program runs June 1 – Nov. 30 each year. Seniors must be 60 or older by Dec. 31 of the program year and have income at or below 185 percent of the U.S. poverty level. Eligible seniors should call their County Aging office to learn when vouchers are given out. Vouchers are available first come first served. With $24 worth of vouchers, seniors can make food purchases at farmers markets.
- WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program also runs June 1 – Nov. 30. Recipients must be on the WIC program to receive this benefit. Children 1 year old and older and pregnant and post-partum women will each receive this $24 benefit during their quarterly WIC visit.
- Commodity Supplemental Food Program, sometimes called the Senior Box, serves participants who are at least 60 years old and have a household income at or below 130 percent of the U.S. poverty level. To qualify, there is an application which requires proof of income. Questions about where and how to access this program can be directed to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Food Assistance by calling 800-468-2433 or emailing at RAfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Food does more than feed our bodies. It lifts our spirits. When everything else around us is changing, a familiar meal restores dignity, making us feel normal again.
If COVID-19 mitigation has changed your ability to buy food, don't worry and wait. Call Pennsylvania's 24-hour referral line, 211.
A 211 information and referral specialists will answer your questions and connect you to the services that match your situation.
Today's troubles are temporary. These times will pass; but in the meantime, Pennsylvanians shouldn't worry about food.
Be confident, knowing we are working diligently to ensure that you have access to the food you need.
If you need help or want to know actions taken by the administration to address COVID-19-related food insecurity, visit agriculture.pa.gov/foodsecurity.