Around mid-morning on the first Tuesday of each month, the sizable community space at Mother of Sorrows Church in Murrysville, PA begins filling up with food.
Last week, volunteers busily stacked canned goods in one corner, while another was already filled with “Christmas breakfast bags” made and donated by members of Faith United Methodist Church in Delmont. Other volunteers brought in cartloads of bright orange Turner Dairy Farms crates filled with milk and eggnog, or stacked giant boxes filled with Gala apples.
Just before noon, a Westmoreland County Food Bank truck pulled up and the big deliveries started coming in.
Mother of Sorrows Community Pantry has what Monsignor James Gaston calls “a good problem.”
“We have more volunteers than we need,” Gaston said. “People want to be involved in this.”
Pantry volunteers partner with about a dozen local churches, organizing monthly distributions to about 200 of the 300 families who have registered with Mother of Sorrows.
“They are an example of how a food pantry should run,” said Jennifer Miller, development director for the Westmoreland County Food Bank.
But as with any other group that relies heavily on government funding and the generosity of local residents, there are challenges — and changes at the top roll all the way down the hill.
“Every year, we struggle to make sure we have enough to provide food not only for the holidays but for all the other days,” Miller said. “People are hungry all year long.”
Nationwide, 13 million children live in households that U.S. Department of Agriculture research deems “food insecure.” In rural areas such as Westmoreland County, the USDA estimates 15 percent of households are food insecure, along with 8 percent of seniors nationwide. When the youngest members of the baby-boomer generation turn 60, the number of food-insecure seniors is projected to increase by 50 percent.
One number that has not changed is the funding amount that comes to places such as the county food bank.
“We're certainly grateful that it hasn't been cut,” Miller said. “But with the price of food constantly rising, keeping the status quo is almost like a de facto cut.”
That financial picture also trickles down to the food bank's 62 local partner agencies, including Mother of Sorrows, which all receive an equal share of food on distribution days.
“What we get depends on what the county food bank gets from the state,” Mother of Sorrows pantry coordinator Dennis Zolkos said.
Mother of Sorrows gets food from the county food pantry, which in turn receives it through the State Food Purchase Program. Westmoreland County is among the top 15 dollar recipients through that program, receiving about $413,000 in the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to state agriculture figures.
“It's the department of agriculture's largest line item,” Miller said.
For Dennis McManus, government affairs director for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, federal budget talks are a real source of concern.
“What's happening in Washington is threatening to undo a lot of the good that individuals and corporations have done in terms of food banks,” McManus said.
A major factor affecting food pantries locally, regionally and nationally is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
As part of his proposed budget, President Trump has targeted a $193 billion reduction in the SNAP program between 2018 and 2028. SNAP's annual budget is about $70 billion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, if put into effect, it would result in a 31 percent reduction in SNAP benefits for the average recipient.
“When you talk about that program being cut or decreased, those people are going to come to food banks to replace what they've lost,” Miller said. “We try to discuss it with our legislators to help them understand how it really affects our consumers.”
McManus said SNAP is a key program in determining the viability of food banks moving forward.
“In our 11-county area, SNAP is responsible for 165 million meals (annually),” he said. “We do about 33 million meals, but if the federal government were to cut that program, you can see how much harder we'd have to work to make up the difference.
“Quite frankly, we couldn't do it.”
In 2017, Miller said the food bank's SNAP coordinator processed 505 applications for Westmoreland residents.
“That helped to generate 488,000 meals,” she said. “The local economic impact is about $2.5 million. That really tells the tale. It's not just the people who use that service who are affected; it's also our local grocery stores, where people go to spend SNAP funding.”
Federal cuts could have a snowball effect, McManus said.
“By allowing (the budget) to be financed through deficit spending, it will create even more pressure next year to cut government spending by eliminating social programs,” he said. “The actions of government have a major impact on the supply of food we have available to serve struggling families.”
By the numbers
Dennis McManus, government affairs director for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, laid out the impact federal and state dollars have when it comes to Pittsburgh food bank officials' ability to help struggling families in Western Pennsylvania.
5.2 MILLION - The number of meals funded last year through federal Community Development Block Grant money, which President Trump had proposed for elimination in his budget. The program is currently funded through June 2018.
3.6 MILLION - The number of meals funded last year through the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
3.1 MILLION - The number of meals funded last year through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program.
500,000 - The number of meals funded last year through the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System.