“In just the first three months of the pandemic, our food bank saw 5.5 million people come through needing additional resources.”
“What we saw in the beginning was people like that, they don’t look at the charitable food network as something they need. The face of hunger wasn’t them. So you saw people hoping this was temporary, but flying through their savings. So the challenge or the objective for us really became to get the word out to people that this is for you. We are here for anyone who is temporarily unemployed and beyond.”
“There’s 53,000 farms in Pennsylvania. I often say for anyone to be struggling with food is outrageous. Not only that, a lot of that food can end up going to waste, and this is such a great win-win for us and agriculture.”
“The statistics tell us there are more behavioral issues, there are more trips to the nurse and there are more absentees. So we’ve really worked with a lot of the schools, the Department of Education and USDA to really promote the fact that every child should be able to have access to nutritious food, especially during the critical time when they’re at school.”
“We do a lot of advocacy work with the federal legislators and state legislators, but throughout the year, the things that we do, our food banks definitely partner with school districts. We have afterschool feeding programs that some of our food banks sponsor.”
“Through the waiver we got for non-congregate feeding sites, as we call it, a child is able to take that home and it reduces food waste. We often find that they are sometimes sharing with their siblings as well. But it also sometimes it’s just a lot more comfortable for families.”
“We are fortunate to be part of the Feeding America Network. It really was quite a time in history, I think for everybody. I’m really proud of the work we were well to accomplish.”
Q: So can you start by giving us an overview of the hunger and food scarcity issues that exist here in Pennsylvania?
A: Sure. So hunger has been a long-time issue, unfortunately, in Pennsylvania. Prior to COVID-19, we had about 1.5 million Pennsylvanians facing hunger. People kind of cycle in and out of poverty based on what’s going on in their lives. That’s why COVID-19 was such a big issue for our food banks, because in just about less than a month, 1.9 million Pennsylvanians had filed for unemployment and we were seeing this new constituency of people who had never needed the charitable food network before in their lives. So when I talk about people and about 2 million coming in and out of our pantries over a year, in just the first three months of the pandemic, our food bank saw 5.5 million people come through needing additional resources.
Q: These were individuals that perhaps had no experience with this support system before, as you mentioned.
A: Absolutely. I mean, and I talk about this a lot, I always use this example, I had a friend who was a hairstylist and her husband owns a gym. Now overnight, the two of them had a great salary together, and now their mortgage is still coming, insurance bills are still coming, the car payments, all of that, but they have zero income. So what we saw in the beginning was people like that, they don’t look at the charitable food network as something they need. The face of hunger wasn’t them. So you saw people hoping this was temporary, but flying through their savings. So the challenge or the objective for us really became to get the word out to people that this is for you. We are here for anyone who is temporarily unemployed and beyond.
So I think that was probably one of the more interesting things for us to see. It was hard. I went to a drive-in distribution last May and I told people so many times nobody wants to be in that line. I’ll tell you 100%, nobody wants to be in that situation. We even saw people handing out a dollar or two from their window saying like, “I’ve never done this before. I’m just unemployed right now. But I promise I’ll be giving back to the food banks when I get back on my feet.”
Q: Yeah. Really challenging and unique situation. So agriculture’s obviously a leading industry in Pennsylvania. Are there any programs that you’re aware of in existence that tie local growers to the organizations that can help get the food to those in need?
A: Yes, absolutely. Actually, Feeding Pennsylvania administers one of the main programs. It’s called the Pennsylvania Ag Surplus System, better known PASS. It is a state allocated program through the Department of Agriculture, and then we subcontract with our food banks and the money is to acquire surplus product from Pennsylvania farmers and processors. So we’ve done anything from working with dairy farms to take surplus milk and process it into cheese or yogurt or other dairy products. We work with egg producers. Sometimes we have to pay as little as 15 cents a dozen just to pay for the cartons for surplus eggs. We’ve paid farmers to get surplus B-grade apples out of the orchard.
Actually, we’re working with state fairs now, some of the county fairs, excuse me, on working with the 4-H livestock sales to be able to allow people to donate an animal and we can use the money to process that into family size packaging. So yeah, you talk about agriculture. There’s 53,000 farms in Pennsylvania. I often say for anyone to be struggling with food is outrageous. Not only that, a lot of that food can end up going to waste, and this is such a great win-win for us and agriculture.
Q: So what does the data tell us about the correlation between hunger and student performance?
A: Well, I often, when I talk about this, I say, “I know I don’t perform well when I’m hungry.” So you can imagine a child who is growing and trying to learn and focus on their school work and then beyond even doing sports, and if they don’t have the proper nutrition they need, the statistics tell us there are more behavioral issues, there are more trips to the nurse and there are more absentees. So we’ve really worked with a lot of the schools, the Department of Education and USDA to really promote the fact that every child should be able to have access to nutritious food, especially during the critical time when they’re at school.
Q: Absolutely. During their learning time and daytime hours when they’re so active, you know?
Q: I mentioned Hunger Action Month. So in addition to Hunger Action Month, what are some of the other programs of your organization that might impact K through 12 students and their families?
A: Sure. So, I mean, Hunger Action Month is really just a time for the charitable food network to take a moment and really shine a light on the issue of hunger. We do a lot of different events. We do a lot of advocacy work with the federal legislators and state legislators, but throughout the year, the things that we do, our food banks definitely partner with school districts. We have afterschool feeding programs that some of our food bank sponsor. Most recently prior to COVID, we’re doing school pantries. So some schools actually designate a classroom to become a school pantry, therefore being able to serve not only families at the school, but people in the community at certain hours.
We’ve been able to work with our federal and state legislators to advocate for the waivers that came through this year as part of COVID, which allowed more people to receive more free and reduced school lunch and breakfast. But also for afterschool feeding programs, it used to be the rule that if a child came to an afterschool feeding program, our summer feeding program, they had to receive their meal. They had to everything in the meal. If they didn’t finish, you had to throw it out. You could not take it with you and you had to eat it there. So through the waiver we got for non-congregate feeding sites, as we call it, a child is able to take that home and it reduces food waste. We often find that they are sometimes sharing with their siblings as well. But it also sometimes it’s just a lot more comfortable for families.
Especially in the rural parts of Pennsylvania when it’s hard to get somewhere to pick up a meal every day when you had something like COVID where schools were closed, the waiver allowed them to take multiple meals home. So they were only dragging the kids in the car one day a week to pick up their meals rather than every single day.
Q: That makes so much sense. So you mentioned the numbers of families that were in need of support due to COVID. Are there other ways that COVID has, and the circumstances surrounding the past 15 months, other impacts to the work of your organization?
A: Absolutely. So typically, when you went into a pantry prior to COVID, it was kind of like a shopping situation. We call it the choice model. So you’d walk around and grab what you needed. Really, COVID made all of that a challenge when you were trying to do social distancing and there was a lot of misinformation about whether or not touching something could spread the virus. So we shifted to a boxed model, which was an enormous change to what we did and having to even work with our volunteers on the social distancing aspect and the disinfecting of even creating those boxes. But a lot of our food banks are still doing this boxed model. It allowed for what you saw on television, Pittsburgh Food Bank was pretty famous for this, you allowed families to do a drive-through non-touch distribution. You popped your trunk. We put the box of food in.
USDA actually started taking on that role as well and did some of the Farmers [to] Families food boxes. In Feeding Pennsylvania, we got even extra money through the Cares Program, and we were able to create our own boxes with Pennsylvania agricultural products as well. So yes, it was definitely a challenge. It was a challenge in our own workforce in a lot of ways. I mean, we all have families. I have two children and everybody is trying to balance how they’re going to continue to provide the services we provide while also trying to balance our personal lives. But overall, we have a really strong network. We are fortunate to be part of the Feeding America Network. It really was quite a time in history, I think for everybody. I’m really proud of the work we were well to accomplish.
Q: Much needed service and support that you all were providing as well as the national level.
Q: So listeners to the podcast, where can they find out more information or what are some ways that they can help and support this cause?
A: Sure. So our website is feedingpa.org where you can learn about all of our members, and then also a lot of our other programs. One of the programs I love is our Healthy Pantry Initiative. We actually have a registered dietician on staff and nutrition educators that are working with pantries on helping families kind of understand a little bit more about nutrition and how it supports you. During COVID, we actually did some kid-related, children-related recipes and little activities that you could do when you have your children at home and you’re like, “Well, what are we going to do together?” using products that you would receive in a food pantry. But I mean, I certainly am not someone that goes to a food pantry, but I found myself even having fun going on there and taking a look at it. So feedingpa.org is where you can find out more.
Jane Clements, CEO of Feeding Pennsylvania
Jane Clements is the Chief Executive Officer at Feeding Pennsylvania. She was appointed Executive Director in June of 2015. Serving as a statewide voice on hunger issues, Jane spends her time advocating for policies that support hungry families on both the state and federal levels. Under her leadership, Feeding Pennsylvania has launched a number of new initiatives, including Fill a Glass with Hope ®, the nation’s first statewide charitable fresh milk distribution program, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative (MARC), a produce cooperative that distributes 30 million pounds of produce annually to 25 food banks in the Mid-Atlantic region; and the Healthy Pantry Initiative, a new program in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Health that will incentivize pantries to increase healthy food and beverages for the people they serve.
In her role, Jane serves on the state’s Mass Care Feeding Task Force through the PA Department of Human Resources and oversees a Disaster Response Committee, responding to both in and out of state disasters. In 2017, Jane was appointed by the PA Secretary of Agriculture to serve on the Emergency Food Assistance Advisory Council and is active in Governor Wolf’s Food Security Partnership.
Prior to joining Feeding Pennsylvania, Jane served as the Annual Giving and Fundraising Event Officer for The Guthrie Clinic, a nonprofit integrated health system located in north central Pennsylvania and Upstate New York. In this capacity, Jane was responsible for all aspects of the organization’s major fundraising events and internal annual giving campaigns. Before that, Jane worked for Chesapeake Energy, a major producer of natural gas in the United States, as a manager in corporate development, overseeing all community relations, outreach, and education in Chesapeake’s northeastern Pennsylvania operating area.