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Molly Boylan

Shannon Cooper, coordinator of volunteers for Meals on Wheels of NEPA, gathers the food containers to then deliver them to the clients. Photo Credit: Molly Boylan

Local agencies work to fight hunger in Northeast PA

By: Molly Boylan, junior English major

Hunger is a global problem.  Yet many Americans are unaware that their neighbors or co-workers are struggling to feed their families.  In Lackawanna County, the problem is greater than many people might assume.

And, it’s not just families that struggle.  Many local food banks and non-profit hunger organizations struggle with keeping their pantries full so that they might provide for the hungry.

Hunger hardships in Northeast Pennsylvania occur 365 days a year. Food organizations in Lackawanna County strive to provide nutritional food for the community by accepting donations and government or state money.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Pennsylvania in 2011 was an estimated 12.7 million.  Feeding America reports that 13.5 percent of Pennsylvanians are food insecure.  This means that approximately 1.7 million Pennsylvanians do not always have access to food to live an active or healthy life.

Michael Hanley, executive director of United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, says hunger lives in Lackawanna County.

“Hunger is an issue. It’s a hidden issue, and it’s an issue that really affects families in every zip code here in Lackawanna County,” he said.

United Neighborhood Center uses the media to spark donations

For many local food banks, a majority of donations arrive around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when organizations engage the communities by holding well-publicized food drives. The United Neighborhood Center of Northeastern Pennsylvania (UNC) is able to stock the shelves of its food and clothing pantry, called Angel’s Attic, to capacity and maintain them until January or February because of the seasonal food drives.

However, with an average of 56 families a day asking for food from the UNC, the shelves empty quickly. When the food is at a minimum in the pantries, organizations tend to reach out to the community through media.

Recently, Pam Berg, supervisor of emergency services of UNC, said Ryan Leckey, WNEP, Cinemark 20 and XD in Moosic, reached out the UNC because they wanted to support a local food organization by generating awareness and support through the recent movie premier of “The Hunger Games.” Moviegoers were asked to bring a donation of canned food or a monetary donation at the door. People who donated were then entered into a raffle for “Hunger Games” items and movie passes.

“Media has done the trick when we get low. It’s a whole lot of asking people to be generous,” Berg said.

The tough times come when the food banks do not have enough to give. The reality of empty shelves causes people to go without food. For UNC, empty shelves mean turning people away and telling them to come back when a new supply arrives.  But that’s not easy, said Berg.   “It’s very sad, very sad,” she said.

Salvation Army distributes food

Major Bea Connell, of the Salvation Army in Scranton,  said that her volunteers would not turn people away, but may have to give them less food when supplies are low.

“Instead of three boxes of cereal, maybe they would only get one box of cereal. We would rather give them something versus not giving them anything,” Major Connell said.

Major Connell says the pantry has never been completely empty, but when it is they too reach out to the community through the news media, calling for donations from the community.

“People always respond to needs when they see them. Need knows no season,” she said.

Salvation Army has a five day food pantry for low income community members. Last year, Salvation Army served more than 7,000 families. Each family that receives aid from the organization gets a supply meant to last two weeks. The items consist of perishable and non-perishable foods. The amount of food distributed to the family depends on the size of the family.

Salvation Army gets its food items from State Food Purchase Program, United Way, and donations.

“We count on donations when the food shelves get really low” she said.

Additional aid for food pantries is available through the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP), a program through Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which supplements the efforts of emergency assistance programs to reduce hunger.

The grants provided through SFPP have minor stipulations for the organizations. They must account for where they money goes and prove that there were bids taken from grocery stores to find the best deals.

Meals on Wheels delivers food to local elderly

 Meals on Wheels of Northeast Pennsylvania, a non-profit that deals directly with elderly and home bound seniors’ food insecurity issues, receives the majority of their assistance from the Area Agency on Aging of Lackawanna County, which is funded by the state.

While the Area Agency on Aging subsidizes the cost of most meals, Meal on Wheels also accepts monetary donations from the community and conducts fundraisers.

Shannon Cooper, coordinator of volunteers, noticed that the cost of everything is continually going up, creating greater hardships for the organization to provide for area seniors.

“The amount [of money] we get does not cover the cost of [the] food [we provide],” she said.

Meals on Wheels is primarily run with the help of volunteers delivering the meals. Many seniors are eligible to have to costs covered by Agency on Aging; however, some seniors pay out of pocket $5.50 per meal.

Cooper said that dealing with senior hunger is different because “they go to the grocery store when they can, buy only things they can carry. They have no stamina to stand and cook a meal,” she said.

Volunteers are required to make contact with the recipients of the meal and are often the only person a senior citizen may see that day. Often times, family members come to rely on the volunteers to check up on their loved ones, as they visit them regularly when delivering meals.    Cooper recalled a time when a daughter of a client called Meals on Wheels to check on her father.

For Meals on Wheels, the volunteers are the ones that keep the organization running by picking up meals and delivering them to their immediate community. Cooper said her favorite part of her job is training new volunteers to deliver meals.

“I love seeing people choose to take action and help out in their community. It is a win-win situation,” said Cooper.

Hanley, UNC, said he believes the strength of the people of Lackawanna County is their willingness to help their neighbors when they know there is a need.

“I think there is a tremendous compassion here in this community and people really want to make a difference.  So it’s a matter of letting them know when and how to make a difference,” he said.

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