The ministry’s director went from food stamps to a professorship to running an essential resource in times of rising food prices.
By Betul Tuncer
There was a time when Ruth Kittner only had $600 for the entire winter — an amount that was very little money even in 1978. With that money, she was able to pay her rent in Denver, utilities and phone but needed some extra support to pay for groceries, so she applied for food stamps.
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“I could buy 6 ounces of beef, a bunch of rice and potatoes, a bunch of beans. And that 6 ounces of beef would last me 10 days,” said Kittner. “And I got criticism at the checkout because I bought beef on my food stamps.”
Kittner is now the executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Ministry [WCM], which operates as a food pantry aiming to provide people with access to fresh and healthy foods.
On an April weekday, a line stretched down the block as individuals and families patiently waited to visit the pantry with reusable bags in hand. According to Kittner, that’s the norm: The pantry provides food to about 60 families every day and averages about 40,000 pounds of free food every month.
Located at 704 Wood St., the pantry is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and allows community members to visit twice a week to shop for groceries.
The pantry aims to provide fresh, healthy foods and help alleviate the problem of hunger and food insecurity that many people face.
“Our motto is, we share food. So basically, if somebody’s hungry, we share food,” said Kittner.
As the cost of groceries continues to increase, the ability to afford and access food decreases for many people.
In America, 10.2% of households experience food insecurity, according to a 2021 report by the Department of Agriculture. And that percentage increases to 12.5% for households with children. In the City of Pittsburgh, one in five residents struggle with accessing healthy and affordable food, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank estimates that 13.1% of Allegheny County residents contend with food insecurity.
“I don’t expect to solve world hunger, much less hunger in Western Pennsylvania,” said Kittner. But she does believe that the efforts of WCM can at least help feed neighbors.
“We can address a daily problem daily and make somebody’s life a little easier and a little less frustrating,” said Kittner.
WCM, established in 1968, has been around since before the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Today, the pantry has 10 employees and about 20 volunteers who help operate the physical pantry, the various mobile pantries and their community garden to provide community members with easy access to fresh, healthy foods.
Kittner first got into this work through her mother, who began volunteering at the food pantry in 1999 and eventually “dragged” Kittner in to help WCM write grant proposals. A couple years into proposal writing, the previous executive director retired and Kittner stepped up to fill the position while simultaneously teaching history at Carnegie Mellon University. She is now fully dedicated to the food pantry and no longer teaches at CMU.
Having experienced the hardship of trying to afford healthy foods and witnessing it through the people who visit the pantry, Kittner said many people don’t understand the problem of hunger.
“You don’t notice it until you see it, until you see the people who are suffering from it and what it does to their overall attitude toward society,” she said.
In an effort to make their service even more accessible, WCM also operates a mobile food pantry that visits locations in Wilkinsburg throughout the week. According to Kittner, this allows people to utilize the pantry at their convenience, especially given that “transportation is a huge problem” for many. The mobile pantries operate from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursdays at Douglas Plaza (2405 Laketon Rd.) and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays at Covenant Fellowship Church (1300 Swissvale Ave.).
Inside WCM’s building, people are able to pick up anything from canned goods, produce, bread, eggs and milk to toilet paper, cleaning supplies and, when stocked, feminine hygiene products. According to pantry coordinator Melissa Wilson, they hope to make the experience of visiting the pantry as close to that of a grocery store as possible and make sure “that we are presenting in a dignifying way.”
The grocery store-like set up of the pantry is especially important to Kittner.
“One of the things we try to do is we give people a choice,” said Kittner. “There’s dignity in choice.”
As pantry coordinator, Wilson greets pantrygoers and helps them register in the system if they are a first-time shopper. WCM serves not only Wilkinsburg — where an estimated 23% of people live in poverty, including 43% of children — but also all of the borough’s neighboring communities. Registration is meant to track the number of customers of the pantry.
Wilson guides people through that week’s selection of foods, encouraging people to take what they need. She also helps pick out items for the pantry from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which supplies most of their food.
Anything that the pantry doesn’t get from the food bank, they get — sometimes for free — from nearby grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Giant Eagle. For items the pantry can’t get through donations, they fill the gaps with funds they receive through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture or through individual donations, according to Kittner.
The pantry served record numbers of people in the first three months of the pandemic, like many other pantries and food banks in the country. Kittner said the pantry serves fewer people now but that it hasn’t dropped to pre-pandemic levels, which she said speaks to major issues within society.
“How can we have a society as rich as ours in a county as rich as Allegheny and have people go to bed hungry? Have children go to school hungry? It’s crazy,” said Kittner.
“My biggest thing I tell people is that it’s not a lack of food,” said Wilson. “You know, there’s food available. It’s a matter of how it moves around in the system. … It’s just a matter of getting it out there.”
Kittner said she believes the general public isn’t fully aware of the issue of food insecurity.
“If you haven’t worked with people who are hungry, you don’t know what the problem is, you don’t understand the problem. Recognizing it for what it is is the first step,” said Kittner.
Community members can keep up to date with WCM’s programs and the location of its mobile pantries through WCM’s Facebook page. Those wishing to donate items or money to WCM can find out how to do so on their website.
Betul Tuncer is an editorial intern at PublicSource and can be reached at email@example.com.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.