Thursday, August 2, 2012

Greater Pittsburgh food bank took in record-breaking donations - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The phrase, "Clean your plate; there are hungry children in the world," hits closer to home than you might expect.

About 320,000 people in southwestern Pennsylvania are food insecure -- meaning they don't know if they'll have the chance to "clean their plate," according to Feeding America.

That demand isn't likely to decrease, said Iris Valanti, director of communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The food bank serves about 1,500 new households each month and reaches around 110,000 households across 11 counties.

But last year, the food bank saw a record-breaking increase in donations: It distributed 27.4 million pounds of food, exceeding the goal of 26 million, the food bank announced Thursday. This roughly translates into 22.8 million meals.

Newly appointed CEO Lisa Scales attributed this rise to better public awareness.

"There's been more outreach ... getting the word out," she said. Developing strong relationships with local grocery stores and donors was key as well, she said.

Ms. Valanti said more people have been affected by or know neighbors affected by food insecurity because of the economy.

A large component of the food bank last year was learning how to stretch its dollars because it was operating on a smaller budget.

Working on a trial-and-error system, the food bank reassessed its program for efficiency and remodeled some distribution systems.

"We're working differently internally," Ms. Scales said. "We're pulling resources together from different departments."

She said now more responsibility is given to member agencies, like food pantries and soup kitchens. Instead of the main facility in Duquesne picking up donations from grocery stores, local member agencies have started picking them up to save resources.

The food bank collects food through donations and its purchases. Donations include goods from individuals, corporations, local grocery stores or farms and government commodities.

Ms. Valanti said the food bank's board of directors creates a "strategic plan" in advance to guide where the group focuses its energy for the year. During the record-breaking year, they emphasized raising awareness of food insecurity and reaching out to rural areas.

For the upcoming year, Ms. Scales said the food bank will focus on three pillars: access to quality food, building partnerships with other community organizations and in-depth assessments of its 400 member agencies.

Ms. Scales said this would be the first year that the organization has closely surveyed its member agencies for efficiency, model practices and mapping locations to better serve southwestern Pennsylvania.

Knowing the number of in-need people, agency locations and produce distribution locations in a given area, Ms. Scales said the food bank can more accurately plan for under-served regions.

Under this method, last year they established another distribution location in western Greene County.

Ms. Valanti said the food bank increases its annual distribution goal each year, so it will continue relying on volunteers to help those in Pittsburgh who can't promise their families a meal on the table.

Mike Cooper, of Greenfield, volunteers for the food bank's monthly Produce to People program, which has locations throughout Allegheny County and provides each needy family with up to 45 pounds of food per month.

Mr. Cooper said he serves about 680 families per month at the South Side site.

"It puts a different perspective on it, actually being out there," he said, comparing it to his other volunteer work at the food bank's main warehouse.

He first started volunteering a year ago, after retiring; he wanted a fulfilling way to spend his free time.

"The food bank was a no-brainer since you keep hearing about people going to bed hungry," he said. "If everyone pitches in a little, it adds up."

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