Despite widespread efforts, the Pittsburgh area faces hurdles to address food insecurity amid pandemic

Local organizations are adapting to serve food-insecure residents and bracing for a continued influx. The region struggles to serve children and the elderly.

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Volunteers in face masks wait for cars to arrive amid the boxes of food they will distribute into the trunks and backseats of cars at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's emergency drive-up food distribution in Duquesne on April 6. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Volunteers in face masks wait for cars to arrive amid the boxes of food they will distribute at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's emergency drive-up food distribution in Duquesne on April 6. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Clyde Lutz waited for an hour in his car to receive two 25-pound boxes of food on April 14. It was only the second time in his life he’s received food aid. 

Lutz, 68, normally works 25 hours per week, making deliveries for NAPA Auto Parts. But he had open-heart surgery in 2006 and is at risk for complications from COVID-19, so his wife thought he should stop working. The first time he collected food aid was after the heart attack.

Their need isn’t urgent — his wife works full time for Armstrong Cable, he collects Social Security and they paid off the mortgage of their Fenelton home last year — but they’re worried about the future.

"I just wanted to have a little extra in case it got worse and we couldn’t get out,” he said. "We cut our grocery bill and everything down. We’re trying to weather the storm."

Lutz was among more than 1,000 people who drove to Alameda Park in Butler for an emergency food distribution by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Some cars had to be turned away.

How much need is out there?

Drone footage of the long lines of cars at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne on March 30 has been viewed more than 1.2 million times on Twitter alone and drew national attention to the problem of food insecurity.

Interviews with more than 25 individuals involved in food distribution in the Pittsburgh region tell an inspiring but complicated story about how dire the situation is, even as restaurants, foundations, churches and other organizations have pitched in to help.

More than 152,000 people in Allegheny County were eligible for federal food assistance in 2017. But how many new people are receiving food assistance through federal programs or from food banks, soup kitchens and new pop-up distributions isn’t clear. 

Some food pantries have reported serving three times as many people as before the crisis, but a few dozen pantries and soup kitchens had to close entirely out of safety concerns created by the pandemic.

The largest distributor of food aid in the region, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, believes more people need food assistance than what’s been initially reported by its food network.

People waiting in traffic for their rations of donated food from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne on April 6. Wait times were around 2 hours while members of the Pennsylvania National Guard assisted food pantry staff. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

People waiting in traffic for their rations of donated food from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne on April 6. Wait times were around two hours while members of the Pennsylvania National Guard assisted food pantry staff. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

And, not everyone who may need food assistance is showing up. Thousands of public school students in Allegheny County who qualified for free and reduced meals aren’t picking up food. Local food advocates suspect something similar is happening with the elderly and have begun delivering food.

NaTisha Washington, the green initiative coordinator at Operation Better Block in Homewood, said some people are confused. “People are calling all these different places to see where they can go to get what,” she said. “Now people are seeing there needs to be a centralized group.”

It’s not clear yet how much need for food assistance there will be going forward. More than 1.65 million Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment over the past five weeks. Many area residents still don’t know when they will be able to work again, whether they will qualify for assistance in the meantime and how their wages may change after the pandemic. 

This makes planning for the coming months challenging, said Jennifer Miller, the chief executive officer of the Westmoreland County Food Bank. “This is our first pandemic. We don’t know what to expect,” she said. "Everything we’ve done is brand new.”

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

In March, the food bank saw a significant but not overwhelming increase in need from its 365 partner organizations across 11 counties. The network served nearly 5,000 additional families in March 2020 than it did in March 2019, an increase of 16%. But Pennsylvania’s shutdown order only covered half of the month.

The food bank had to close down its old mass distribution program, Produce to People, which served more than 7,500 families per month, because it wasn’t safe to have people pick up food in person. But the food bank's drive-up mass distribution events have continued to grow: It served 800 families on March 30 in Duquesne and more than 1,200 on April 24 at its ninth distribution near PPG Paints Arena. Cars were turned away at several of the distributions. The food bank is still planning more distributions in counties where its old distributions closed.


Jane Clements-Smith, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, which supports food banks across the state, said the social distancing measures have made the food lines look even longer. “The lines were always there,” she said. “They just weren’t in cars.” 

The Pittsburgh food bank has received about 2,600 calls from residents in the past five or six weeks, and Chief Executive Officer Lisa Scales said she believes most of those were from people not already connected to a pantry. The food bank’s partner agencies are ordering 30% to 40% more food now, Scales said, and some partners that closed are hoping to reopen soon.

The cost of providing food aid is going up. The food bank distributed a million pounds of additional food in March than is typical, Scales added, and more of it is in the form of shelf-stable items like peanut butter and pasta. But it doesn’t receive as much of that kind of food as donations, so it’s having to purchase a larger percentage of its food. Some of the food it ordered hasn’t arrived because it’s now competing with demand from grocery stores.

The food bank reported spending $1.7 million in March and April just on food, three times as much money as it was spending on average every two months before the crisis. The food bank predicts it will spend $1 million for each of the next few months and expects to see increased need for 12 to 18 months. 


From the Source Podcast Episode 4: The food bank employee helping to get food to people during a pandemic


Donations have surged, including from the Hillman Foundation, The R.K. Mellon Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, which collectively donated $800,000.* Scales said on Monday that she did not yet know how much the food bank has received in donations so far.

The City of Pittsburgh announced a $500,000 grant Tuesday, and on April 18 Gov. Tom Wolf promised another $16 million in food aid, about 16% of which will go to Pittsburgh’s food bank.

Food banks aren’t the only way families get help: The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] provides nine meals for every meal provided by a food bank across the country, according to Feeding America. In eligible households of four people, SNAP provides a maximum of $646 per month for food and the benefits have been increased to the maximum during the crisis. But that only helped the 60% of households not already receiving the maximum. While there wasn’t a surge of applications in March, the data isn’t available yet for April. 

As Pennsylvanians file for unemployment assistance and SNAP benefits, providers are uncertain how many residents will need meals.  “My crystal ball is as clear as yours. I have no idea,” Clements-Smith said. “We had 1.5 million [in Pennsylvania] at risk of hunger before this crisis and now have almost as many on unemployment.”

Where are Pittsburgh children eating?

Feeding students when they’re out of school is already a challenge, and that’s continued to be true for Pittsburgh during the crisis. 

Pittsburgh Public Schools and the City of Pittsburgh have seen participation in their school meal program jump from about 1,000 students in the first week of school closures to roughly 1,500 students a couple weeks later. But that pales in comparison to the 19,000 daily lunches the district and city served before the crisis, including to about 13,000 students who qualify for free and reduced meals.

When schools closed the week of March 16, the district served meals at all of its schools. But it reduced the food distributions to 16 schools because many sites were serving relatively few students, and some workers couldn’t afford daycare. Now the city and several community organizations are providing food at 16 more locations. Pamela Capretta, the chief operations officer for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the district is losing money — it continues to pay all of its staff but is reimbursed by the federal government for a fraction of the meals it once served.

Families pick up lunches at Obama Academy in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Families pick up lunches at Obama Academy in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

On March 27, 412 Food Rescue began delivering meals three times per week at 12 bus stops where many students would otherwise have had to walk more than a half-mile to pick up a lunch. CEO Leah Lizarondo said it gave away all 3,000 meals during its most recent distribution, although these meals can be taken by anyone, not just students.

412 Food Rescue has begun to partner with organizations that need help delivering food to vulnerable residents without transportation. “When the food bank distributes right now, it’s all drive-up distributions,” she said. "That helps thousands of people, but many in the margins don’t have a car and aren’t able to do that."

The city typically serves meals in the summer with kids noisily painting or playing basketball, according to Lindsay Powell, assistant chief of staff for Mayor Peduto. "And it’s real quiet now,” she said. “Many [city staff] see some of their kids for after-school programming and they wave to them from the car. It’s good that they are safe and doing well but it’s definitely lonely and different."

Powell knows there is still significant work to be done. "Are we meeting all the needs? I would be a fool to say yes. There is so much need,” she said. "So I hope every week to be more innovative and more nimble to how we can respond to folks reaching out.”

Between March 16 and April 25, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania supplied 84,000 meals for $4 each. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Between March 16 and April 25, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania supplied 84,000 meals for $4 each, mostly at schools, to supplement the food being served by districts. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Feeding students is also a challenge outside of Pittsburgh. Sharon McDaniel, the president and CEO of A Second Chance, a local nonprofit, saw on an Allegheny County map of food distribution sites that there weren’t many offerings in Penn Hills. Only about 160 of the more than 3,500 students in the district were picking up meals.

The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which received $1 million from PNC Bank, has since offered to provide 2,000 meals there. Penn Hills was the sixth Allegheny County community where the United Way has been providing extra meals, and it has plans to double that soon. Between March 16 and April 25, the organization distributed 84,000 meals. The United Way pays organizations like Eat'n Park $4 each (the federal reimbursement rate) to produce the meals.

Eat’n Park has had the most capacity to supply meals quickly, said Julie DeSeyn, vice president of community impact for the United Way. For example, a cafeteria worker at a local district was diagnosed with COVID-19 and the rest of the staff couldn’t work anymore. Eat’n Park stepped in. 

Parents in need may be able to buy lunch food for their children on their own soon: On April 20, the governor announced that Pennsylvania was applying to give out school lunch money directly. If the state’s application to the United States Department of Agriculture is successful, each eligible family would be given $5.70 per day, per child.

But it’s not just students who need food now, McDaniel said. Her nonprofit gives out food to everyone who shows up. "We’re not looking for income eligibility or whether not they had a meal yesterday,” McDaniel said. "This is a crisis.”

*PublicSource receives funding from the Hillman Foundation, The R.K. Mellon Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Shannon Kavanagh.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines.  Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

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