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Giving Military Families A Hand-Up With MilitaryShare

Michael Rubinkam
Pictured is a bag of food packed by a volunteer for the Second Harvest Food Bank in Nazareth, Pa. The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank has a MilitaryShare program that gives away thousands of pounds of food to military families.

It is drilled into soldiers to care for others before yourself. To be self-sufficient.

These two qualities that serve so well on the battlefield are the very barricades to an increased use of MilitaryShare, a food distribution program for active service members, veterans and their families that has been in Lebanon County since September.

MilitaryShare provides 50 to 60 pounds of food to military families free of charge each month, with a pick-up in Lebanon County at the Palmyra VFW the third Friday of every month. The only requirement is proof of military service (DD214, Military ID or VA Medical Center card).

"It's more of a hand-up than a hand-out," Gret Stegall, the mobile distribution and produce manager for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, said Friday in Palmyra.

A Navy veteran himself, the son of a World War II Army veteran and the father and father-in-law of Air Force veterans, Stegall knows all too well the difficulties of stretching military pay far enough. When he got out of the service, he was a single father, and remembers the struggles well.

As an employee of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Stegall started MilitaryShare in December of 2015.

In all of 2016, MilitaryShare gave out 400,000 pounds of food to military families in the 27-county Central Pennsylvania region. In 2017 that amount grew to 1 million pounds of food, and there's more to give.

Stegall and advocates of the program, including Col. Frank Ryan, USMCR (Ret) are trying to spread the word so more military families know.

"The change in salary is significant," said Ryan, a Republican state legislator serving the 101st legislative district, of what military families experience during deployment.

National Guard members - who now, according to Ryan, see more deployment time than any other branch of the service - have a substantial drop in income from their civilian job. They also have to pay for their meals while deployed - Ryan said meals are deducted from their paychecks. Meanwhile there is a family at home that continues to try to buy groceries and clothing for growing children.

The 60 pounds of food includes 30 pounds of healthy staples, and fresh food (including produce, milk, eggs, cheese and meat) to help stretch the family food budget.

In addition to helping with groceries, the program also reduces the amount of things the veteran has to worry about.

"(The MilitaryShare) helps meet the nutritional needs of military families, it allows them to focus on other pressing issues such as joblessness or treatment for combat-related health issues," according to testimony given by a Mr. Thompson before Congress on Jan. 13 and part of the Congressional Record of the United States House of Representatives.

Ryan said he's been familiar, over the years, with many military families that are forced to find relief with food stamps.

Stegall said it's important for military families to know that by claiming a MilitaryShare each month, no one is being left out, not other military families and not the thousands of families that access traditional food banks.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank gets its food from donations (many of the state's major grocery stores) and by purchasing food with its own funds. By giving the food out in locations veterans already patronize -- such as VFWs and merican Legion buildings -- the program hopes to reach more military families and give them their share. The shares are given the same day each month so there's no series of dates to keep track of, Stegall explained.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank estimates there are 2,250 veteran households in the 27 Pennsylvania counties it serves. According to a map the food bank put together showing numbers of vets living below poverty level in the last 12 months, there are areas in central, northwest and northeast Lebanon County that have 26 to 48 veterans living below the poverty level.

"Our goal is to serve the underserved," Stegall said. When it comes to receiving help, "Veterans are one of the last to show up."

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