Food Insecurity: Food banks, agencies, individuals work to fill stomachs

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Volunteers for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

By Deborah Lynch

No one in Central Pennsylvania — or anywhere — should have to go hungry. Yet, many still do despite a plethora of food banks, soup kitchens, community gardens growing food for the poor, agencies, organizations, and individual volunteers working tirelessly to help make sure everyone can have a nutritious meal. 

The Harrisburg region forms a perfect geographic and transportation hub for farms, agencies, truckers, and trains to meet up for food distribution that covers a wide swath of the Mid-Atlantic. Couple that with fertile farmland and a large warehouse presence, and the Harrisburg region becomes the mothership for meeting food needs.

What’s not as easy to understand is how, what, and where to get that food as an individual. Food banks supply agencies and organizations who have outreach with smaller groups and individuals that can then get the food out to those who need it. It’s an intricate web of non-profit organizations that coordinate and complement one another to feed the greatest number of people possible.

“We’re a central player in a network, so folks don’t generally come to our warehouse for food — they go to our partner agencies,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central PA Food Bank.

Part of the equation is devoted volunteers. Some are warehouse stockers, driving forklifts and training others. Others distribute food directly to the hungry. Others pack food boxes or contact organizations or man phones. Behind every organization is a large network of volunteers.

Some individuals are so concerned they take the burden to feed others upon themselves. Michele Frey Orsinger flipped her 35 years of restaurant cooking into a Sunday food event for the homeless in downtown Harrisburg. She coordinates with Susquehanna Harbor Safe Haven to provide services and uses their commercial kitchen to prepare huge trays of her home-tested specialties like Philly Cheesesteak Casserole, Chicken Taco Pasta Casserole, Spaghetti and Mozzarella Stuffed Meatloaf, and so much more.

“She’s like the MacGyver of cooking. It’s like Top Chef every time she comes here,” said Krista Farah, the program director for Susquehanna Harbor Safe Haven, which serves 25 men with mental health diagnoses. She said Orsinger and her husband volunteer at the shelter and cook dinner for the men every Sunday night, then package up the rest to take to the tent encampment by the I-83 bridge along the Susquehanna River

Organization leaders don’t encourage a lone wolf approach to helping feed others — both for their safety and economic output, and for the safety of those they serve. They recommend that those interested in helping serve the homeless or helping with food insecurity volunteer at registered non-profits.

Orsinger, with Farah’s guidance, also realized she could access more resources and support if she formed a 501(c)(3), so her application is filed, and that will make her eligible for training and food from the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank among other resources. That means her “Feed the Harrisburg Homeless” Facebook group will become a charity known as “Everyone Eats.” She will get training with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, and will then be eligible to get food from them as well to help with her creations that feed the homeless each week.

Training and Resources

Noting that partner agencies work under agreements with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Arthur said that compliance and training protocols are followed. “When you’re dealing with food and dealing with vulnerable populations, we encourage those who are independent to work with a local organization to serve. … When you do it in a systematic way, there’s much less chance for something bad to happen,” he said.

Another example of individuals, groups, and agencies working together includes the work done by Vera Ann Williams, pastor of The God Is Love Family Inc. in Harrisburg, who works with a big volunteer group to regularly distribute boxes of food to Harrisburg residents. They work through churches and other organizations to distribute 100-200 boxes of food, which has been supplied by Cocoa Packs and also the outreach ministry of Fountain Gate Church, among others. 

“Everybody can help somebody,” is Williams favorite slogan, and she says a bishop from Fountain Gate says her name is now “Restore.” “Anything or any people that need to be placed — I’m like the restorer,” she said. Williams uses Facebook for her outreach to help her find those in need, then find the resources they need, and finally to find volunteers that help her in her mission.

A role for agencies and ministries

Along with individuals who work in tandem with churches and other groups are the agencies that work at the next level up in the hierarchy with the larger food banks and organizations. Eric Saunders, executive director of New Hope Ministries, says local churches banded together in three counties (Adams, Cumberland, and York) to form New Hope Ministries’ eight locations with warehouses and walk-in refrigerators to serve their communities. New Hope is a member of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank as well as the York Food Bank, and is the beneficiary of many other warehouses, shippers, and grocery stores in the area.

“Our mission is to take care of individuals and families who are going through tough financial times … there are a lot of reasons why people struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their heads,” he said.

New Hope’s eight fixed sites are open five or six days a week, and the ministry also offers a traveling food pantry to serve smaller communities. The fixed sites are in Dillsburg, Dover, Enola, Hanover, Littlestown, Mechanicsburg, New Oxford, and Lemoyne (the West Shore Center). In a typical year, New Hope sites serve more than 22,000 individuals.

When Sandy Sack moved to Mechanicsburg from Tennessee five years ago, she needed something to do. She found New Hope and has been volunteering there for 2½ years now, answering phones, helping with the food pantry, making appointments, filling out forms, and just whatever help is needed. She noted that along with food, New Hope offers so much more including GED and job training programs, parenting classes, and shelter. 

“It’s really hard when you’ve grown up in an atmosphere and you don’t know how to get out of it,” she said. “You need someone to hold your hand and show the way. We’re here to hold hands … .” 

Smaller food banks and gardens

In addition to larger food banks, some communities have their own, such as Hershey Food Bank, which served nearly 10,500 individuals in 2020, providing 280,920 pounds of food. Many of the food banks and agencies like New Hope Ministries also offer help with emergency utilities and rent, which was even more important for even more people during the pandemic.

Others that help the food banks and organizations confronting food insecurity include local and state gardens, like the Capitol Hunger Garden, located between the Main Capitol building and the Ryan Office Building on the Capitol grounds, run by a bipartisan Hunger Caucus of the state House and Senate. More than 700 pounds of produce is grown each year, then donated to Downtown Daily Bread for its soup kitchen.

Another local garden reaping large volumes for charity is the Hershey Community Garden, where seven garden plots are farmed by volunteers to grow food for Cocoa Packs, a Hershey-based backpack meal program that serves more than 1,400 students in Derry Township, Harrisburg, and across five counties in Southcentral Pennsylvania. Volunteers plant, maintain, water, weed, and harvest the plots with help from Patti Wells, the master gardener who works for The Hershey Company.

Last year, a total of 14 plots at the Hershey Community Garden produced more than 3,400 pounds of vegetables and 1,000 flower vase arrangements. More than 1,000 families benefit from items grown in the garden, and food was donated to groups including Hershey Food Bank, Palmyra Food Bank, Middletown Food Bank, and Cocoa Packs.

“We have been very fortunate to be one of the organizations receiving fresh produce from the Hershey Community Gardens on a weekly basis during the season,” said Odette Bergloff of the Hershey Food Bank. “We have a few families that are vegetarian and truly appreciate receiving fresh produce.”

Anne Hartzfield, who coordinates volunteers at the Hershey Community Garden’s seven plots for Cocoa Packs, said one of her favorite parts is working together with the families and groups who volunteer at the garden. Groups include the Vista School and Hope Springs Farm. “It’s just awesome to do and be a part of,” Hartzfield said. “We have adults with autism coming out and serving other people with their work. This is a beautiful circle of service. We’re providing a service for food insecure families, and it’s also providing them [the volunteers] with the opportunity to learn skills and be productive. In the process of doing it, they are helping other people.

“You get more than you give,” she noted.

The garden’s bounty supplements the non-perishable items families get with Cocoa Packs. “The excitement people have when they see fresh tomatoes. They saw these beautiful tomatoes, and people get excited,” Hartzfield said.

Finding healthier options

People do want — and need — fresh foods along with the non-perishables that are easier for food pantries to provide. As Central Pennsylvania Food Bank’s Arthur noted, the goal is to achieve a 70 percent rating on the Foods to Encourage scale (where snacks get a 0 percent rating and healthier foods are closer to 100 percent). “We achieved that in 2020 for the first time. Our job is to keep it there. We had help with the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] providing a lot of extra produce,” he said.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which provides food to more than 1,000 partner agencies and programs in its 27-county area, has 300 steady food donors and a list of 50 businesses that they can purchase food from (brand name companies with whom they form relationships). The food bank gets food from larger commercial farms, too. “We’re also blessed with agriculture,” Arthur notes, adding that Central Pennsylvania Food Bank also works together with a food bank cooperative, called The Mid-Atlantic Regional Produce Cooperative, through which 26 food banks pool resources to get deeply discounted produce from the surplus at the port in Philadelphia. 

Another partner is Feeding Pennsylvania, which is a network of food banks across the state. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture also helps distribute food in Pennsylvania through different programs. TEFAP (Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program) provides food from the federal government to each state, which is then distributed to each of the 67 counties by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Food Assistance. Counties can distribute on their own or designate a lead agency. In Dauphin County, that is the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which is the lead agency for two other counties, too, and serves 27 counties total. Last year more than $80 million of food was provided through that program.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture also administers a state food purchase program totaling $18 million, which again is allocated to each of the 67 counties, but in the form of cash grants that counties can use to purchase food. 

Ten years ago, the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS) was enacted, but funding wasn’t secured for the program until 2016. This program is contracted through Feeding Pennsylvania, which then subcontracts with 13 food banks to cover all of the counties. Through this program, each food bank works directly with agriculture providers to secure products that are safe and wholesome, but not necessarily ideal for the retail market (picture the oddly shaped carrots, for example). 

“This uses funding to help farmers recoup costs to produce and package the food. Instead of apples being left to rot, we can pay the orchard to harvest, package, and deliver to the food bank for distribution,” said Caryn Long Earl, director of the state’s Bureau of Food Assistance, noting that more than 20 million pounds of produce have been distributed through this program.

The bureau also got $10 million in CARES funding (plus another $5.1 million from the state budget) to purchase produce, dairy, meat, and other protein products helping Pennsylvania farmers and those with food insecurity at the same time.

Finally, the bureau administers the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which offers a monthly food box to 36,000 low-income senior citizens. The food banks advertise the program in their communities.

Feeding America has provided grants in response to greater food insecurity because of the pandemic, in particular for people of color and rural communities. The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank will use its grant from that program to find solutions to this issue in the mid-state to determine how the Food Bank can better respond now and in the future.

“Having access to enough food to sustain a healthy, productive life is a basic human right,” Arthur said. The food bank also will use the grant to make the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) available to everyone who needs it, including offering bilingual staffers and a language line.

More is always better

A new player in the area is Midwest Food Bank, which is leasing a large warehouse on Commerce Drive in Middletown as a Mid-Atlantic distribution point for the growing food pantry ministry. Currently, the food bank serves 25 agencies in Pennsylvania (including Bethesda Mission, Camp Curtin YMCA, Cocoa Packs, and the Boys & Girls Club among others) with the numbers growing each month. 

For Lori Renne, the executive director for Midwest Food Bank, Pennsylvania, joining this newcomer to the Harrisburg area was a no-brainer. “I’ve been very fortunate my entire career that every company I worked with had good social responsibility — I had done things at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, the Boys & Girls Club, and others. I just had such a passion for the helpers. I wanted to be a helper, too.”

She’s happy that Midwest Food Bank can be another source for the many mid-state agencies that seek food. “When you think about a feeding agency, it’s so good that they have a variety of sources. What if something happened to us? Let’s lift up the support. We’re like another grocery store for them to come to and get what they need.”

Renne acknowledges the benefits of agencies to have choices saying that one food bank might offer one thing, and another might have something else. “Our main job is to get that excess and get it to where it’s needed most,” she said, adding that Midwest was born when its founder, who had a farm in the Midwest, couldn’t figure out how to get all his food to all the hungry people. 

“Distribution is the heart of our model,” she said. “Pennsylvania is the perfect place. Every major road comes here. We can channel food in and out.”

Add to that the great crew of volunteers, and Renne sums up the food distribution system in Central Pennsylvania perfectly: “One of the things I love about this area is everybody steps up. We’re so fortunate in this area.”

Individuals and families suffering from food security can find pantries and soup kitchens with a zip code search through the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank’s website food locator at CONTACT Helpline’s PA211 services can also help refer callers to resources.