Pennsylvania’s Battle Against Hunger: An Urgent Call for Statewide Action

Students on their lunch breakPhoto by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

HARRISBURG, PA — As food banks across the commonwealth report record demand, the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Coalition (PHAC) has presented a series of recommendations to address escalating food insecurity in the state. The plan is to reinforce the state’s charitable food network and properly fund anti-hunger programs in the 2024-25 budget.

PHAC, a collective of anti-hunger, religious, anti-poverty, and socio-economic nonprofits, works tirelessly to combat hunger but also targets the underlying policy issues that perpetuate food insecurity. The state’s draft budget identifies priority programs such as the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP), the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS), and the Pennsylvania Senior Food Box Program.

Sheila Christopher, Executive Director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, emphasized the gravity of the situation, citing that demand and utilization rates at the food banks within their network are unprecedented, surpassing even the peaks witnessed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Christopher stressed the urgent need for adequate SFPP funding, as the program remains instrumental in fighting hunger in the state.

“Pennsylvania currently provides no-cost school breakfast to all K-12 students. But when it comes to lunch, many students are left to fend for themselves. Why do we provide one meal and not the other?” asked Nicole Melia, food service supervisor of the Great Valley School District in Malvern, Chester County, and the public policy and legislative chair for the School Nutrition Association of PA. “Polling shows eight in 10 Pennsylvania voters support expanding no-cost breakfast to include lunch. That’s because school meals are as essential to education as technology, transportation, and textbooks.”

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As resources diminish amid increasing demand, strategic investments are necessary, says Julie Bancroft, CEO of Feeding Pennsylvania. She highlighted the importance of investing in the PA Agricultural Surplus System, which supports a network of over 200 agricultural producers and feeds more than one million households each year.

One of the pivotal solutions presented by PHAC is the provision of universal school meals. School meals don’t merely address hunger, they tackle childhood weight issues and obesity, improve overall child nutrition and wellness, boost child development and school readiness, and even contribute to positive mental health outcomes.

The inconsistency in Pennsylvania’s provision of school meals is a matter of contention for Nicole Melia, food service supervisor of the Great Valley School District. With Pennsylvania currently providing no-cost breakfast to all K-12 students, the question is raised why lunch isn’t provided universally to students as well.

PHAC also advocates for an increase in the minimum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit for seniors and people with disabilities. Adam Peterson from the Central PA Food Bank shared the impact of senior food box programs. He spoke about how the program, through its home deliveries, not only provides crucial nutrition support but also aids seniors’ health and their ability to age in place.

Nick Imbesi from the Chester County Food Bank narrated the story of Joan, a Southern Chester County resident who had to choose between life-saving surgery and affording food due to her financial predicament. Thanks to SNAP, she didn’t have to make that heart-wrenching choice.

Joining PHAC’s call to action were Sen. Elder Vogel Jr. and Rep. Emily Kinkead, co-chairs of the bipartisan Hunger Caucus. They reiterated the commitment to fight food insecurity and work towards expanding food access for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable residents during upcoming budget negotiations and policy discussions.

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“Funding free school breakfast through the state budget for the first time last year was a bold step in the fight against child hunger,” Kinkead said. “I want to keep that momentum going and secure free school lunch for every public school student in the Commonwealth. It’s kind of backwards that a Pennsylvania family of four making $56,000 does not qualify for free lunch, but a family of four making $150,000 can receive private school scholarships.

“As co-chair of the legislative Hunger Caucus, I’m working toward expanding food access for our most vulnerable residents in the upcoming budget negotiations and policy discussions in Harrisburg,” she said.

The urgency of PHAC’s recommendations can be underscored by the fact that food prices have risen by 27% in the last five years according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor. Rising food prices and strained family budgets are leading to increased demand for food banks, and food inflation prevents these charitable networks from making their funds stretch further to help more people.

In the face of this escalating crisis, PHAC’s recommendations offer a comprehensive approach to address the complex challenges of food insecurity in Pennsylvania. These recommendations are more than just measures to provide food, they are investments in the health, well-being, and future of Pennsylvanians, and as such, they merit serious consideration.

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