Food Pantries Face Tall Task with More Residents Struggling

By Weaver, Rachel | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

Food Pantries Face Tall Task with More Residents Struggling


Weaver, Rachel, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Thirty years ago, a statistic shocked Joyce Rothermel into action.

A study by the Hunger Action Coalition revealed that 48,000 people in Allegheny County had gone for 24 hours without eating.

"Knowing about something is one thing, and finding ways to concretely do something is another," said Rothermel, 65, of Wilkins.

She found solutions. In 1980, she co-founded the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which today distributes food in 11 counties in Western Pennsylvania out of a 94,000-square-foot warehouse in Duquesne. That's a far cry from its beginnings in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in the Hill District.

Rothermel, the food bank's CEO in 1987, has seen use increase drastically in recent years.

"Since August 2008, we've served an average of 2,500 new households every month," said Rothermel, who will retire in June.

Marlene Kozak, CEO of the Westmoreland County Food Bank, said about 1,000 more people use the food bank than a year ago. The pantry serves 12,000 to 15,000 people a month.

"Usually, the numbers would go down in January, but that doesn't happen anymore," Kozak said. "I'm sure it has to do with the economy. Prices of food are going up; gas prices are high. There have been plants shut down and layoffs here in Westmoreland County."

Across Pennsylvania, with 12.5 percent of people living in poverty, state and federal support for food banks is waning. That has forced the Greater Pittsburgh food bank to dip into reserves to buy food. Next year, it will spend $1.1 million more on food than it did in 2006.

"During the holiday season, there are more family demands," Rothermel said. "There are a lot of expectations to be able to have a special meal with family and friends."

Lillian Campbell, 64, of Penn Hills has relied on a food bank for five years. She is the adoptive mother of her niece's two children, ages 4 and 7.

"They're my backbone," said Campbell, a former nursing home housekeeper. "They keep me going."

When her fixed income made money tight, a family member introduced her to the Lincoln Park Community Center pantry. Because of it, the family never has gone a day without a meal.

"The food bank is a great, great help," said Campbell, who does not qualify for food stamps. "Sometimes if it weren't for them, I don't know what I would do.

"There are people out there who are ashamed to go to places like the food bank. They'd rather sit around and say they don't have anything. But there is no need in being hungry."

Campbell said she gets "everything you need to run a household," including healthy food, diapers, toilet paper and dish detergent.

"They give meals, not just for one day, but for several days," she said. "It's things you can use."

Tara Marks, co-director of Just Harvest, a South Side organization fighting hunger and poverty, knows firsthand the importance of food pantries. Eight years ago, as a single mother putting herself through college, she turned to Just Harvest for help.

"I used to say I survived by credit cards, student loans, the food bank and the grace of God," she said.

Marks, who took the position this year after Joni Rabinowitz retired, remembers the joy of getting her holiday meal from the pantry, complete with the fixings.

"You could have that meal, and it was how grandma would've made it," she said. "You could share in those conversations with people when you talk about holiday dinners and say, 'Yeah, I had that same meal.'"

Marks said hunger is not just a holiday issue. …

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