Number of food bank clients is on the rise in Pittsburgh
Along Altmayer Street in Sharpsburg, the doors of St. Juan Diego Church all post the same laminated list of food pantry rules, even though each door is less than a foot away from the next.
The page lists the hours and dates that the food pantry is open, warns that clients may be dropped from the list if they miss two consecutive dates and reiterates that only pre-interviewed clients will receive food.
It’s jointly run by St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Indiana Township and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with donations from local churches, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and others.
Even with these resources, the pantry is open just the third Thursday of every month from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The St. Mary’s food pantry is one of three pantries associated with the community food bank open to Sharpsburg residents — an area that has been designated a food desert by the USDA because of low access to grocery stores and fresh produce.
During the summer, John Staud, who has run St. Mary’s food pantry for 18 years, said it serves a little more than 100 households; during the fall the number spikes to more than 130.
“I look forward to it every third Thursday of the month,” said Lisa Dukes-Garner, a Sharpsburg resident who uses the pantry. “It’s something that I constantly have on my calendar.”
Like the one in Sharpsburg, most of these smaller food pantries may open only once or twice a month, sometimes for only an hour or two.
“Many are volunteer-run, small, community-based programs. They are struggling to keep their doors open and bring in enough funds to pay utility bills,” said Lisa Scales, CEO of the community food bank.
Food pantries limit services to residents of the neighborhood. The most commonly reported reason for refusal of service in Pennsylvania, according a 2014 Feeding America study, was that the potential client lived outside of the food-service area.
The other two community food bank pantries are farther away. One is in Etna and the other is a little more than 6 miles away in the Hampton area.
As more people rely on food banks, the sources for food has been changing. Traditionally, food banks relied heavily on donated canned goods, primarily from national manufacturers. Those food sources have diminished over the years as manufacturing became more efficient and national manufacturers donated less as a result.
At the same time produce donations from local farms have increased. The food is healthier, but it needs a faster distribution process to prevent spoiling.
“We’re transitioning a whole operation that needs to distribute the produce more quickly. It’s a challenge, but it’s one we’re being successful at meeting,” Ms. Scales said.
Their 10 largest pantries are now encouraged to distribute produce weekly.
One of the largest food pantries is the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry, which provides emergency food as well as food for anyone who qualifies for the food pantry and follows a hallal, kosher or gluten-free diet. It is open five days a week and one weekend each month.
The Squirrel Hill pantry, 828 Hazelwood Ave., is a newer model, known as a shopping or choice pantry. Clients are provided with a shopping list based on their household size. The list is made by the Squirrel Hill pantry, which dictates how many items of each category they are allowed to take. When a client checks into the pantry, a volunteer takes the list and helps the client navigate the aisles.
There are extra costs for this system because it takes up more space. “This extra room that we have costs more than renting a single room in a church,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the food pantry.
Fewer than half of the food pantries in Pittsburgh are shopping pantries like the one in Squirrel Hill, Ms. Scales said. The Northside Community Food Pantry at 1601 Brighton Road in Central North Side, which is the largest in the Pittsburgh area, recently finished a successful CrowdRise campaign for improvements to the pantry. It was already a shopping pantry, but operators are making it more accessible for people with disabilities and making the experience less time-consuming.
“That’s the preferred method, but not all of our agencies are able to do this. They don’t have the space to provide that kind of opportunity,” Ms. Scales said.
Smaller pantries offer a table so people can swap food items. These pantries face a number of challenges. In Sharpsburg, for example, most of the volunteers are older than 80. Mr. Staud said he is looking for someone to take over the operation.
Potential client interviews, for safety reasons, often require multiple volunteers to be present. One of the primary reasons an applicant is turned away is because his or her income is too high. The community food bank serves people at 150 percent poverty. In 2015 that is $17,655 for a single person and $36,375 for a four-person household.
“Sometimes the system doesn’t want to help you out because they say you have too much income, and how can you have too much income if you don’t even have a job? A lot of times that part of it is kind of baffling to me,” Ms. Dukes-Garner said.
Pantries require an income statement to establish need. Mr. Staud and Sister Lois Spinnenweber, apostolate minister of St. Mary of the Assumption Church, and others are full of stories of people trying to beat the system, especially for services beyond food.
Mr. Staud said he knew of one family that was visiting five food pantries a month and receiving free meals from a school in Oakland. Another man accepted food from the pantry and then proceeded to dump it in his neighbor’s yard.
Pantry operators must check income statements and leases, and often end up visiting empty lots and calling fake landlords to determine eligibility for services.
When the person is authentic, these measures end up being time-consuming. Sister Spinnenweber goes to the gas station with people who request gas money to ensure the money is properly spent. Mr. Staud said they need to see a copy of a lease and call the landlord before they distribute any rent money.
“You can’t believe everything that these people tell you,” he said.
Restricted hours, income eligibility guidelines and residence requirements are not prohibitive, if someone knows he’ll need food ahead. If his pantry is closed, the community food bank has more than 20 emergency food pantry locations.
Hours of assistance vary by pantry. The best way to get 24-hour assistance is to call the United Way’s 211 line. On weekends, the community food bank keeps emergency food boxes at its Duquesne headquarters off Route 837; it can be reached at 412-460-3663.
“At that time, we are meeting the immediate need,” Ms. Scales said. After that, “we identify a pantry that they can go to on a regular basis.”
The Squirrel Hill Food Pantry is one of the community food bank’s emergency food locations. Mr. Bolton said that when he started at the pantry, 2½ years ago, it saw two to five emergency food clients a month.
Now, the pantry sees 20 to 30 emergency food clients a month.
Mr. Staud said the Sharpsburg pantry fields two to three calls each week. The community food bank receives, on average, 30 phone calls for emergency food a month.
Caelin Miltko, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a student at the University of Notre Dame and is spending her junior year at Trinity College in Dublin.