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Food insecurity grew, as did partnerships in pandemic

PHOTO PROVIDED The Food Bank of Central Pennsylvania facilitates food distribution events around the area with the help of community organizations and volunteers.

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on food insecurity, but this region has it’s wealth of “heroic hunger heroes.”

This year, more than 330,000 people in central Pennsylvania are making impossible choices between buying groceries or paying for other expenses such as housing, utilities, medicine or childcare, according to a stark discussion in a virtual Town Hall meeting Thursday sponsored by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

Organizations, volunteers and generous donors getting these individuals food were considered by Arthur to be heroic.

The effects the virus has had strengthened the commitment of staff and partnering agencies working with the food bank at Harrisburg and Wahoo Drive to continue to prevent families and individuals from going hungry, as the virus remains a threat.

“We have served 57 million meals,” said Joe Arthur, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank executive director.

Arthur was joined by town hall panelists who saw food insecurity and food delivery missions increasing first-hand. The panelists included Alice Fox and the Rev. Kerry Aucker from the New Love Center, Jersey Shore; Bishop Roberta Thomas, Fountain Gate Church and Ministries,

Harrisburg, and Amelia Contreras, Manos Unidas Hispanic-American Center, Gettysburg.

Among the locally-sourced type of food was 32 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products.

The food bank worked with its 1,200 local partners in 27 counties, an area encompassing twice the size of New Jersey.

“The food bank providers offered a helping hand to many who needed it, including rural communities and those of color,” Arthur said.

“Our partnership with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank is so important because whatever we needed all we had to do was make a call or two calls,” said Fox, president of the New Love Center, a charitable non-profit that provides and distributes food in Lycoming and Clinton counties.

Fox said a lesson that came out of the pandemic was food distributions are up in Jersey Shore and a pop up pantry in Lock Haven and Renovo were created.

“Part of what we’ve learned is wherever you go, people are willing to volunteer,” Fox said.

One day during a planned pop up pantry only three volunteers were available for a job requiring 20, she said.

Once the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank truck arrived, the help came. Then, “all these people got out of their cars,” Fox said.

“We’ve gained partnerships and served people, and our clients were so blessed,” she said.

“Food shouldn’t be an impossible choice,” is the slogan on the food board at the Harrisburg church where Thomas serves.

“If there is a will, there is a way,” she said, adding, “knowing we understand food needs are a reality and know no racial limitation.”

Contreras said the pandemic taught the importance of pre-existing collaborations and partnerships such as those with the food bank.

“When the pandemic hit, we didn’t have to go around crazy to find the need,” she said.

The locally-sourced farm-fresh produce and dairy products were served at food pantries, soup kitchens, by military veterans affairs groups and to senior citizens, he said.

These individuals may “still need a helping hand for months, maybe years,” Arthur said.

“COVID tested our will, our resolve and our ability to adapt,” Arthur said.

It re-enforced the need to ramp-up delivery of food and enabled the food bank to serve over 40 percent more people than the prior year, he said.

“The pandemic’s biggest lesson was hunger can affect anyone,” he said.

More than 40 percent of the clients served were seeking food assistance for the first time, he said.

The pandemic showed than anyone is vulnerable to facing financial hardship leading to food insecurity.

“It brought it into focus,” Arthur said.

While emergency food assistance remains core to the food bank mission the food bank also is helping people to find financial stability and end hunger before it begins, Arthur said.

As recovery gets under way, the food bank personnel are discovering isolated rural communities and those of color continue to be hit the hardest.

“We are seeing food insecurity rates that are still higher in rural areas,” Arthur said.

The pandemic challenged the nation’s food supplies, which in some cases were unable to deliver products.

But the food bank’s suppliers, partners and partnering agencies such as the U.S. and state Departments of Agriculture continue to work hard to find healthy food, Arthur said.

The pandemic has placed the focus on the value of sourcing food and dairy products, locally, with partners and growers and producers.

These individuals are “the unsung heroes,” he said.

Meanwhile, September is Hunger Action Month, a time when the food bank asks the public to act on the issue of hunger in local communities.

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