Central Pennsylvania Food Bank serves as lifeline in year of COVID-19 | News, Sports, Jobs

City resident Greg Pick found himself food insecure through a job loss last year, but discovered a lifeline available at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

Pick said he lost his job last March, went on short-term disability and then, in July, his place of employment closed.

Down to one income and “pinching pennies,” he asked for and received food assistance from the food bank warehouse at 3301 Wahoo Drive.

“Thank God for places like this,” Pick said. “We’re going to make it through this.”

“If you don’t have enough healthy food, everything else is impacted,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank at Wahoo Drive and in Harrisburg.

Food insecurity for many in the region around Williamsport and in the city was likely to linger on for another two years at these levels, Arthur said.

The situation is slowing improving after a year when supply chains were reduced, but the need remains to provide security for pantries and refrigerators.

“Before the pandemic we had five trucks that went out regularly from the Williamsport hub to our partners in what we call the northern tier of our service area, delivering food to their distributions,” said Shilo Cole, a logistics supervisor at the warehouse.

“With the increased demand, we added two more drivers to make sure no one goes hungry,” Cole said.

“We now have eight trucks that go out, which is 70,000 pounds a day with some days hitting as high as 120,000 pounds,” Cole said.

The pandemic forced “no-touch” mandates from the state Department of Health changing pantry-style method of delivery.

“We changed to announcing a certain day and time and people drive up and the food sharing occurs in more of a distribution method,” Arthur said.

Distance is one impediment making rural counties harder to serve, he said.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank serves 27 counties total — 13 counties around and north of Interstate 80 from its Williamsport hub.

The food bank serves about 200,000 people per month and has nearly 1,000 partner agencies.

The food bank operates with the third largest dairy program in the nation producing milk, cheese and butter.

“It is an incredibly robust program with the dairy industry,” Arthur said. “We’re proud of that.”

The sheer number of miles of highways and roads to cover could not be done from Harrisburg alone and done economically or efficiently.

“We’ve invested and grown our healthy food hub team of 22 people who are doing and outstanding job,” Arthur said.

The teams are operating using COVID-19 protocol such as safe, no-touch-surface distribution by vehicle.

That will continue until the agency is given the all-clear from the state Department of Health, he said.

Economic recovery a key to reversing food insecurity

“Everybody is rooting on the economic recovery that seems to be underway,” Arthur said.

But the pandemic was historical in terms of elevating hunger, he said.

Not since the “Great Recession of 2008,” had Arthur seen as many individuals and families in need of fresh food, either vegetables, fruits or canned staples.

The atmosphere is improving.

“It is not quite as extreme as levels we saw in late November and December,” he said.

He expected food insecurity to continue but said there has been a massive amount of support from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

After the economic slump in 2008, the food bank saw food insecurity continue to rise for four years, Arthur said.

Federal government support was substantial then but “not like it is now,” he said.

The federal coronavirus relief is truly large and “helping a lot of people with unemployment insurance, direct checks and keeping households — many of which are struggling – from going into more food insecurity, he said.

While the vaccines are rolling out, business remains restricted to some degree throughout the state.

Solving the health crisis and economic rebuilding must happen together.

Early in COVID-19

As the crisis hit, it was “almost impossible to get canned food,” Arthur said.

To counter the need to get nutritious food to the hungry, the food bank tried to make it up with offering fresh and frozen foods.

That is when the U.S. Department of Agriculture played a role.

“We did whatever we could to get with commodity food programs and shared it with food banks,” Arthur said.

“We had to make do in the early part of the pandemic,” he said.

“In our territory we have strong relationships with larger growers and farmers and food producers and distribution centers,” Arthur said.

Among those relationships is with dairy farmers and food processing and companies turn those dairy products into other food, he said.

The food bank has received funding from the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System.

“We get dome dollars that help us pay for processing and get product packaged and shipped to food banks,” he said. “We use donor money to leverage that as well.”

Not all areas of the nation have that kind of food growing and processing at their finger tips.

The food bank continues its interaction with Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network and Feeding Pennsylvania, he said.

The food bank mission continues to be to serve the healthy pantry initiative nutrition, education and working with partnering agencies to encourage health eating and providing by offering healthy food.

“We are working hard with the youth programs, school districts, boys and girls clubs and other agencies to get summer feeding of children ready, he said.

It was a struggle last year and “we want to make sure it is more robust this year,” he said.

“We want folks to know we still need help, we need donors to be generous. We have volunteers helping in our packing center in Harrisburg.

“We have crisis response boxes to give out and the food supply situation, which it improved compared to this time last year, remains real,” he said.

As always, the food bank is seeking input and referrals, such as farmers who might want to be a partner.

To reach the food bank, call 717-564-1700, or go to centralpafoodbank.org.

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