When nutritious food is too expensive, there’s help available

(Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

From assistance to food banks to “rescued” meals, Pittsburgh-area agencies work to put food on the table for every household.

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More than 140,000 people in Allegheny County live with food insecurity — a lack of access to adequate food that prevents individuals from leading a healthy life — according to a recent analysis by Feeding America. Not everyone who is food insecure qualifies for government benefits, though, with almost half of the county’s food-insecure population living above the threshold for SNAP benefits. This is why food assistance resources are essential in providing everyone with access to healthy and nutritious food.

If you are experiencing temporary or long-term food insecurity, here are resources that can help you navigate that difficult circumstance.

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Can you get SNAP benefits?

Sometimes known as food stamps, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] offers support for those in low-income households who need help accessing food. 

To be eligible for SNAP benefits in Pennsylvania, your bank account must not exceed a certain level relative to your household size. Analyze your yearly income in relation to the number of people in the household using this table. There is no bar on college students receiving SNAP, if they otherwise qualify.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, you can apply online at COMPASS, over the phone or in person at your closest county assistance office, which can be found on DHS.PA.gov. You need to provide your name, birthdate, address, Social Security number and gross income.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank can aid you in completing the application. 

“Our call center can also assist people in a variety of ways, including helping people find pantries and food resources near them, signing up for SNAP and connecting them with our partners who can help with some of the root causes of food insecurity,” like housing, employment, medical bills and childcare, wrote Christa Johnson, the food bank’s communications specialist, in response to PublicSource’s questions. Their call center number is 412-460-3663 ext. 655.

How can you access food resources?

Whether you’re experiencing a temporary emergency or long-term food assistance needs, there are resources for you. 

The food bank, which works with partners to service 11 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania, provides food through various services in the area in addition to running their own programs and events.

“Depending on the area of the distribution, neighbors can drive up and select grocery items, or they can walk up and select items,” wrote Johnson. A schedule of these events is available on their website.

In addition to these events, the food bank has partners that can include domestic violence shelters, soup kitchens, after school programs and food pantries, to which they provide food.

The food bank has a finder tool on their website which allows you to identify local resources to meet your specific needs. 

According to David Carrico, the food bank’s vice president of information technology, this tool is unique in its ability to search for both food locations near you, and resources that are catered to needs or time constraints. “For instance, if they can only make it to a pantry after 4 p.m., this allows them to search for resources that satisfy those requirements,” he said.

Multiple cans of soup stacked on top of each other on a shelf.
Canned soup is stacked on the shelves at La Roche Providence Pantry in 2023, at La Roche University in McCandless. The food pantry saw its highest number of visits in fall of 2022, more than double the amount of visits that spring. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Seniors and children can also access support for their unique needs. For seniors, the Pennsylvania Senior Food Box Program provides healthy groceries to qualifying residents, which can be picked up at food distribution events. There are also options for children that can assist individuals both inside and outside of school settings. 

Johnson also points toward the food bank’s Get Help Guide, which outlines many key options for those who need assistance.

When attending a food pantry or distribution event, it’s best to bring identification and address information, but workarounds exist for those who don’t have access to documents. 

“We are required to have people fill out a self-declaration of need which is a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture requirement. That form requires an address but if someone doesn’t have an address, we can forgo it,” wrote Johnson. “For anyone who doesn’t have an ID, they can bring in a piece of mail with their address on it.” The food bank can also document visits by unhoused individuals.

Are there other ways to fight hunger in Pittsburgh?

According to Feeding America, 92 billion pounds of food is wasted annually in the United States, while 44 million individuals are still food insecure. In Pittsburgh, some organizations are working to attack this discrepancy and ensure food that would be otherwise wasted can go to those who have difficulty accessing it.

412 Food Rescue addresses food insecurity by redirecting nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted to the community partners.

In addition to providing food to those in need, Just Harvest is a local non-profit organization that focuses on ending regional hunger by addressing the root causes of food insecurity. From SNAP, to tax filing assistance, Just Harvest helps people navigate benefits and access a variety of programs for low-income individuals.

They also provide a list of resources outside of their own services.

What can you do to help out?

If you’re looking to get involved in helping the community combat food insecurity, there are plenty of avenues. 

Look to donate goods from the most needed items, but food banks are particularly in need of monetary support due to food price inflation, according to Johnson.

“We love physical donations of food, but a monetary donation allows us to stretch a dollar and buy in bulk, providing more food to our neighbors in need,” wrote Johnson.

Many organizations have volunteering opportunities for those who want to contribute their time to helping. 412 Food Rescue lists many ways that you can volunteer, by delivering food or spreading the word. You can help out in your neighborhood by contacting your local pantry, soup kitchen or community center to find out what they need. According to Johnson, the food bank also has “a strong need for volunteers at our onsite pantry,” and you can sign up through their activity finder.

For a full list of how you can help out at the food bank, their website details every way to get involved.

Many of these organizations advocate for better public policy regarding food and work to unite communities. 

The food bank has a neighborhood council including people who have experienced food insecurity and an advocacy group targeting lawmakers. “The last way people can help with addressing food insecurity,” wrote Johnson, “is to help advocate.” 

Delaney Rauscher Adams is a former editorial intern at PublicSource and can be reached at drauscheradams@gmail.com

This story was fact-checked by Laura Turbay.

This article first appeared on PublicSource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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