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Problem of statewide hunger tackled at local hearing

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Jamie Caputo, right, development and community relations director for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Williamsport, leads a tour of the food bank after a policy hearing agenda on Wednesday morning.

There seem to be no easy answers to fix the problem of hunger in the state, but some ways of at least trying to alleviate the problem apparently are in place.

During a state hearing Wednesday at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank on Wahoo Drive, members of the state House Majority Policy Committee, were asked to do more.

With the state budget deadline looming later this month, many agencies are hoping they don’t face reductions in spending allocations.

Joe Arthur, executive director, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which serves Lycoming County, told lawmakers that food insecurity remains high.

“Our view is there is something structurally wrong that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Arthur was responding to questions regarding why so many people continue to go hungry in the state.

House Majority Policy Committee Chairman Kerry Benninghoff said demands for food resources only seem to increase, despite relatively stagnant population growth across the state.

“It seems like a dog chasing its tail,” he said.

Eric Saunders, executive director, New Hope Ministries, said many people, including those with jobs, struggle to feed their families.

“We have a complicated scenario because of societal changes,” he said.

According to statistics from the Harrisburg-based Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, one in eight state residents struggle with hunger.

Why is the demand for food so significant? Benninghoff asked.

Arthur said food insecurity greatly expanded after the recent recession and only since about 2015 did it alleviate at all.

“We distribute three times more food than in 2007,” he said.

Erin Smith Wachter, director of advocacy and public policy for the food bank, said the agency distributes more than 48 million pounds of food and grocery products every year to soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries across a 27-county region.

“We truly believe no one should go hungry,” she said. “The need is real.”

Candace Dotterer White, a third-generation dairy farmer from Mill Hall, testified that her farm makes use of the surplus milk it produces by shipping it to Penn Cheese in Winfield. Some four truckloads of milk were processed there into 25,000 pounds of cheddar cheese for distribution across the state, including to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

The processing, she noted was funded through PASS, also known as the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System, which covers costs also associated with harvesting, packaging and transporting surplus products for donations to the charitable food system.

Arthur said he wants to see an increase in PASS funding.

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, said PASS dollars do not appear to be targeted for reduction in next year’s budget.

David Swartz, district director, Penn State Extension, testified that his agency, while known for agriculture and 4-H programs, also provides nutrition education to families.

The federally funded Nutrition Links program is provided to low-income residents to develop the knowledge and skills for stretching food dollars, plan healthy meals, wisely use food assistance and read nutrition labels.

The program also has helped more than 350 people learn to grow their own food.

State Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township, said he felt the hearing resulted in some good feedback and information.

“I encourage these organizations to reach out to us,” he said.

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