Food banks strained as Bedford County’s finances debated

BEDFORD – Food pantries are among the latest groups to feel the effects of Bedford County’s ongoing financial struggle, charity leaders said this week.

Since June, the county’s six food bank branches have reportedly taken in more than 100 tons of food without paying – the result of missing or delayed checks from the county government, Bedford County Food Bank coordinator Phyllis Johnson said this week.

The county network’s two primary food providers, the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and the Bedford-based Blackburn-Russell Co. Food Distributor, have extended credit for months as they await repayment, she said.

It’s an unprecedented situation for the food bank system, based in Bedford’s Mount Pisgah AME Zion Church and for two years the county’s lead agency fighting hunger.

“We’ve owed [the providers] for six, seven months,” Commissioners Chairman Kirt Morris said Tuesday. “And that is unacceptable.”

The food providers said Wednesday that they have no intention of cutting off the food bank’s supply, despite the months-long lag in payment.

But the delayed state-to-county checks are piling up, Johnson said, and just as the commissioners prepare to write one, another will soon be due for delivery. The food bank owes some $25,000, with just one $12,000 check delivered in December, she said.

The money is distributed to counties from the state Department of Agriculture; county governments then pass the money to their hunger-fighting agencies. The commissioners blamed slow state payments and higher-level bureaucracy, but Johnson said she suspects the money has already been used elsewhere.

“I think they just put it in the general fund and spent it,” she said Tuesday.

That’s not impossible, the commissioners acknowledged: The state money frequently goes directly to the already overdrawn county coffers, with the commissioners distributing it to earmarked groups later, Morris and County Treasurer Paula Sheirer said.

“Most of those checks come into the general fund. Then we may need to move it into some other fund,” Commissioner Paul Crooks said.

The county’s growing deficit is a frequent topic at weekly government meetings – a portion of a $1.6-million tax-anticipation note filed Tuesday will help pay the indebted food suppliers, Morris said.

Central Pennsylvania Food Bank Communications Director Brad Peterson said agencies have owed the group money before – usually for administrative and overhead costs – and they’ve never had to cut off their supply.

“We’ll provide credit as long as we need to. We’re going on good faith … that we’ll receive our payment,” Peterson said.

The Bedford County Food Bank system has taken in more than 200,000 pounds of food without payment over the past several months, he said.

Jeff Blackburn, co-owner of Blackburn-Russell Co. Food Distributor, said it is owed money as well, though he declined to say how much. In the meantime, its line of credit remains open to the food bank.

“We have confidence … it’ll be repaid,” Blackburn said. “It’s just bureaucracy, I guess.”