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Advocates call on Pittsburgh to put $10M toward supporting groups serving the hungry

Food equity groups — including the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, Just Harvest and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank — are calling on the city to do more to support residents who struggle to afford fresh, healthy food. More than 30 speakers joined a post-agenda session held in City Council chambers Wednesday to advocate for a $10 million food justice fund.

Advocates argued the fund could support efforts to expand urban farming, develop community markets with affordable produce, create nutritional education resources and expand food organizations. Ebony Lunsford-Evans, owner of FarmerGirl Eb and director of Out of the End Inc., said during a press conference Wednesday that her Black-owned fresh food market in Elliott shouldn’t be an anomaly.

“I cannot be the only one,” Lunsford-Evans said. “I’m out here educating our youth all the way up to seniors… In the Black community, we can’t identify [healthy] food.”

Out of the End educates young people about urban agriculture and how to grow healthy food. The organization is one of many that could be supported by the proposed Food Justice Fund.

Zinna Scott, a retired Homewood resident, called on the city to do more to foster a better variety of grocery stores throughout Pittsburgh. Scott said she has watched as affordable grocers — including Kroger’s, A&P, Loblaws and IGA — have left Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods over the years. “We have Giant Eagle left. … They’re not the least expensive grocery store in our city.”

Ten other food equity groups were at Wednesday’s press conference, including the Pittsburgh Food Equity Ambassadors, Grow Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, Perry Hilltop Citizens Council and Pennsylvania state Rep. Dan Frankel. Some food equity groups have been pushing for a food justice fund since the city issued a report in 2020 identifying 23 areas struggling with food insecurity.

In a letter sent to Mayor Ed Gainey and members of City Council earlier this month, Teaira Collins, a food equity ambassador with the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, argued that the most affordable food in the grocery store is often the least healthy. She spoke about her experience learning how to garden to prevent an overreliance on processed foods while holding a can of Chunky Campbell’s soup. “This comes in the Food Bank boxes. We cannot eat this. It’s high in sodium,” she said.

“Being able to go out in the back of our house and plant fresh fruits and vegetables” was critical for Collins and her kids. She called on the city to ensure other families could nourish their children with fresh ingredients.

The food equity groups are proposing the city use federal pandemic aid toward creating the Food Justice Fund.

“It’s time for the City to seize the opportunity of this historic influx of funds to address long-standing racial inequities in healthy food access and the deep harm that has caused,” said Karlin Lamberto, interim executive director of Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. “Our top priority is City Council creating a Food Justice Fund to support urban agriculture, small business development, access to healthy foods, training and education, and emergency food distribution.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Gainey’s office explained that while the city has not yet spent a large portion of the $335 million it received from the federal government, the funds were already spoken for.

“As it currently stands, there are no unallocated ARPA funds that would be available for this fund,” said Maria Montaño. “While the City does have a significant amount of unspent ARPA dollars — that money is bookmarked for specific projects.”

The city could reallocate federal pandemic aid toward the fund, but it would come at the expense of other projects. The Gainey administration recently said budget feedback had been overwhelmingly focused on infrastructure projects.

Wednesday’s press conference preceded a post-agenda session in council chambers about food inequity across Pittsburgh. District 7 councilor Deb Gross chaired the hearing. Council members heard from more than 30 speakers, all of whom supported establishing the food justice fund.

Councilors Bobby Wilson and Erika Strassburger, who represent portions of the city’s North Side and East Ends, called for continued talks about engaging community groups working on food inequity and what Council’s role can be in addressing the issue. Strassburger suggested the city partner with Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County to find solutions.

Gross noted that investing in food equity is a good investment “in our neighborhoods.”

“Investing in our food system is investing in our jobs and job creation,” Gross said. “It’s investing in our educational success and basically investing in the future success of the city at large.”

Though the Gainey administration does not appear inclined to reallocate federal aid toward the food justice fund, Montaño said she looks forward to hearing more from residents about their budget priorities.

"We hope to continue to have this robust conversation about our priorities as a City," Montaño said. "We invite everyone to attend one of our upcoming budget meetings to learn more about the process and to give us feedback."

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.