Central PA Food Bank Executive Director has a 12-month a year mission

Photo By Rick Snizik
Story By Randy Gross – rgross@harrisburgmagazine.com

It is a disheartening yet undeniable truth in this world of ours: every single night someone goes to sleep hungry, and every single morn another someone wakes up with that same hunger. Even sadder is the fact that those “someones” are multiplied by the millions.

Thankfully, it is also undeniable that there are forces at work to remedy the unrelenting problem of hunger. And, in Central PA, there is perhaps no force that is equally unrelenting in attacking the social ill of hunger than the appropriately named Central PA Food Bank and its leader, Executive Director Joe Arthur. It is because of the undeniable impact that the Food Bank has had under Mr. Arthur’s leadership that he is being profiled as this month’s “Influencer.”

December is undeniably the month of the year when, as Dickens said, “Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” But, contrary to popular belief, the month doesn’t necessarily bring a spike in the number of mouths that need fed. “It does get busier for the holiday season, traditionally,” says Arthur, “but I’m not sure there’s more people in need. But awareness raising is in abundance.” Noting that “hunger is a 12-month a year, 365-day scourge,” Arthur seeks to make the Central PA community aware that “we need everyone’s help throughout the year.”

“But right now,” he concedes, “we do need help for the holidays, in terms of support, and also volunteerism, which thankfully continues at a high level.”

It is Arthur’s own spirit of volunteerism, evolved at an early age, which has made him ideally suited for his current occupation.

Financial challenges beget empathy

Living as a child in anthracite coal territory, just north of Scranton, Arthur recalls “growing up in a family that was challenged, financially and some other ways.” Needing to rely on others for help “helps you to be more thankful,” he adds, “and so I think my perspective was, there are a lot of folks who need help.” After marrying and moving to the Midstate, he embarked on a community banking career, during which time he was encouraged to volunteer with organizations providing that same kind of help – including the Central PA Food Bank.

“As a volunteer, I just really fell for the work we were doing, and just fell for the mission,” he proclaims. “It was no preconceived thing, not a childhood wish … but I do think having some struggles opens you up to understanding that anybody could be struggling at any time.”

For the next twenty-plus years, Arthur would find himself moving from volunteer to board member, to board president, and finally to his current position as Executive Director of the Food Bank, and the work has not only provided sustenance for his family, but also plenty of self-fulfillment. “I think the most fulfilling thing about the work is the work,” he says with pride. “You get to go to bed every day, no matter how challenging your day was, knowing that you’re helping a lot of people. That our team is leading a mission that is helping hundreds and hundreds of people every single day that are struggling.”

He continues, “We’re really the means that people help people, by providing financial support, donations from our food businesses, from volunteers, from other friends of the food bank, and we’re in the middle kind of coordinating that support that gets to our neighbors in need.”

“And that’s just really uplifting work.”

Which isn’t to say that Arthur and the Food Bank haven’t been facing challenges. In fact, they were already working to overcome one of those challenges when an additional unexpected one hit.

Overcoming stigma, misconceptions, and the pandemic

There are many stigmas when it comes to the subject of hunger. The most common seems to be the embarrassment people feel because they don’t want anyone to know they are seeking help.  People who, as Arthur puts it, “are kind of suffering in silence.”

“We try to reach through that and make sure people know that if you need help, it’s okay. Pick up the phone, reach out to us, call our helpline. If you have access to the internet, go to centralpafoodbank.org. We have plenty of support. We just need to find you, and we need you to reach out.”

In addition to the stigma, Arthur continues working hard to dispel misconceptions, including the fact that much of the area the Food Bank serves is rural, not urban. “We talk about it all the time, but that is something that is a long-held kind of a myth, that need is in the cities,” he asserts. Citing the reason for hunger in rural areas as job loss, Arthur places the blame clearly on economics: “the investment hasn’t been there,” he says, adding “and that just creates this environment where more families are struggling.”

Another notable misconception was brought to the forefront with the advent of the pandemic. Prior to Covid, says Arthur, “the majority of the households that we served were working, had working adults in the household, but just not making enough money to afford all of life’s financial burdens, and I think that’s a surprise to some people, because it was almost 60 percent.” With such a large number of families already “struggling to make ends meet and therefore keep their refrigerators stocked,” needs only became more amplified with Covid and the resulting layoffs.

Even more shocking to some people is the statistic that shows that 98 percent or more of those working – or formerly working – adults have homes or apartments. “People tend to link directly hunger and homelessness,” says Arthur, and while the Food Bank works with partners like Downtown Daily Bread and St. Patrick’s Cathedral to aid “the most vulnerable citizens,” the homeless are only a small percentage of the people they actually serve.

Of course, “serving” anyone once Covid-related supply chain issues arose became even more of a challenge.

“For the Food Bank, we’ve been able to manage,” says Arthur,  “and that takes a lot of work and it takes donor support, which thankfully has been very strong, even as we sort of come into this recovery that’s been  happening even though it’s been a bit choppy.” Due to that generous donor support, the Food Bank has been able to pay the higher prices for the truckloads of food they need, plus, with a little creative substituting, Arthur happily says, “our shelves are stocked pretty strong going into the holidays.” 

Among the surprising substitutions: fresh potatoes and sweet potatoes in place of canned potatoes.

Arthur explains: “We found that we needed another channel of food supply for fresh healthy food. So, we started an endeavor in 2021 that we call FARM – Farm and Agency Resource Market – so what that really means is, we’re coordinating with smaller farms, and our local partner organizations to connect them together locally …  and then provide grant dollars to our partner agencies to allow them to pay those local farmers, or local farm markets – to be able to offer that farm something for the seconds – that’s good food that doesn’t have a primary market – rather than that go to waste.”

Next year, the Food Bank plans on scaling the FARM program up, with donor funding used to provide the grants.

Hope for the future

Though Arthur remains concerned that post-pandemic and post-stimulus food insecurity may continue in Central Pennsylvania for as long as two more years (“we are now starting to see a slow creeping up of demand”) he tries to maintain a “prepare for the worst, and hope for the best” attitude. That positive attitude is top to bottom in the organization, from the board room to the packing facility, where volunteers continue to pack so-called Recovery Boxes six days per week.

“We’re hopeful,” Arthur says. “We’ve actually had conversations recently with our board as we look at our strategic plan, and our goal was, by 2025, to make sure that everyone who is struggling with hunger in Central Pennsylvania, that we would be able to make sure they have 3 healthy meals every day.”

“But” he continues, “we also said that we would start working on making progress toward actually ending hunger, which is a different thing. So, we committed as a leadership team and our board to elevate that work around ending hunger … so that means working in partnership with others who are doing that work, to help people not need our Food Bank in the first place.”

With such lofty, but certainly not unattainable, goals in mind, Arthur stays true to his share-the-credit nature when he makes a closing request: “If you can find a way, make sure you thank all the people who are helping in this mission in any way, whether they’re donating or volunteering, as friends of our Food Bank’s mission. We simply couldn’t do it without them.” 

Thank you, one and all.

To find out how you can aid in the battle against hunger, visit www.centralpafoodbank.org.