Food banks see rise in working families seeking help

Even as the economy was improving the Great Recession, area food banks saw more working families seeking help.

“The number of families on a tight budget, even though they are working, has gone up steadily,” Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, said. “Since the Great Recession, the amount of need hasn’t really come down with the unemployment rate.”

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank hosted a workshop in Altoona on Wednesday to meet with partners from Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon and Fulton counties who help provide nutritious food to 135,000 central Pennsylvanians each month.

The Food Bank’s message, “No One Should Be Hungry,” is also its milestone. The organization has set what it calls its “Bold Goal” for 2025 to “provide access to enough nutritious food for everyone struggling with hunger in each of the 27 central Pennsylvania counties we serve.”

Arthur said this idea of hunger has evolved because of changing community needs. Hunger, as a measurement, is about quantity of food, he explained, while the concept of “food insecurity” accounts for the quantity and quality of food people have access to. He described food insecurity as a “deeper concept.”

“Generally, when folks talk about being hungry, it’s sort of like ‘enough food,’ but food security is really enough healthy food every day to lead a healthy life,” he said.

The evolution in perspective came from a change in community needs. In the early 2000s, he said, the Food Bank only focused on emergency food needs for about 40,000 people. That number has tripled as the organization focuses on supplemental services to a growing demographic of working-class families who struggle each month to buy healthy foods.

The Food Bank reports that in Blair County, 12.4 percent of the total population, or 15,460 people, is food insecure.

Pastor Barron Deffenbaugh, 28th Street Church of the Brethren, coordinates a free lunch and food pantry for the Altoona area. His program was born from the realization that the children of these families who receive free and reduced price lunches at school will also need assistance on evenings and weekends.

“If your belly is growling, how are you ever going to be able to study or do anything constructive?” he said. “If we can keep them being nourished, we can encourage them for the future — for a better tomorrow — as well as take care of their food insecurity situation for today.”

Deffenbaugh explained that his program’s partnership with the Food Bank is important for getting items affordably from multiple food companies and farms.

“Our partnership with the Food Bank is very viable for us,” he said, “because we wouldn’t be able to secure what we get without that partnership.”

Food Bank officials reported providing over 45 million meals with 1,000 partner agencies and programs last year.