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Pittsburgh Council to take up long-awaited food justice fund

A woman sits at desk behind a microphone.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Council member Deb Gross said she hopes a food justice fund won't just solve hunger now but will ensure "a healthier, more thriving local economy in the future."

Two years after advocates began lobbying for the creation of a “food justice fund,” Pittsburgh City Council is poised to take up a plan to spend $3 million on the proposal — an initiative supporters say will address long-standing inequities in food access.

The plan is set to be introduced in council Wednesday morning, and as an old truism would have it, it aspires to do more than simply give a resident a fish. Its funds could be used to teach people to prepare the fish, as well as provide freezers to store it and counter space to sell it.

The goal, according to the four-page proposal, is “to increase public investment in a just, equitable, and sustainable food system that supports our neighborhoods, local economy, and the environment.”

The plan includes two main parts. One covers projects ranging between $75,000 and $500,000. It offers grants to entities — be they for-profit or nonprofit, or community groups with sponsors — willing to serve communities where access to food is not reliable. Those projects could include efforts to expand or create community markets or stores, establish “food hubs” for local producers, or encourage composting and community-health efforts such as cooking classes.

The second part involves smaller-dollar grants “to support grassroots efforts” — those carried out by entities with annual budgets of $500,000 or less — to address needs at a community level. The grant program will be administered by a third-party group, to be chosen by a bidding process. The plan envisions the administrative groundwork being finished this fall, followed by a request for proposals from grant-seekers and actual checks being sent out next spring.

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City Councilor Deb Gross said the goal is not just to feed the needy but to spur a network of food production and consumption to satisfy community needs — especially in communities that market forces don’t reach.

“It's true that we have hunger today,” Gross said. “But while we do the things that we need to do to feed people today, we should also make the investments so that we have a healthier, more thriving local economy in the future. It's about the jobs.”

The $3 million comes from President Joe Biden’s 2021 COVID-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan. The city received $335 million from the program, and advocates began pressing for some of those funds to be used for food aid during the administration of former Mayor Bill Peduto. They failed, but they resumed the effort under Mayor Ed Gainey, seeking $10 million for it. They received about one-third of that amount after city officials freed up the money by drawing down support for the long-struggling land bank.

The coronavirus pandemic deepened long-standing concerns about “food deserts” — communities in which access to nutritious food was limited or non-existent — and food-justice advocates have long pressed for urban-garden programs to provide a local means of food production as well. Gross said that using ARP funds to address those needs is consistent with what other cities have done with the money, as well as with prior city initiatives, such as an effort to help working families by providing subsidies to child care providers.

“This is the kind of investment that our residents actually want from us so that their neighborhoods have these kinds of options in them," Gross said. "And I think investments of this kind are the kind of economic development and community development that cities should be doing and, in fact, other cities around the country are doing."

The food fund proposal is perilously close to its sell-by date: The budget resolution earmarking the funds included the caveat that “if the plan for said funds is not submitted to council within 6 months … [then the] funds will be reallocated elsewhere in the city’s budget and the Food Justice Fund will not receive the 2023 proposed allocation.”

The mayor signed the bill January 4, and council President Theresa Kail-Smith said it was submitted on June 30, the last day it could have been filed to meet the deadlin. Council will take it up July 5, and Kail-Smith said she was ready to consider the measure.

Still, Kail-Smith said she had some questions about the proposal, which could be discussed around the council table next week. Some of them involve a broader concern about the city handing out a large number of small-dollar grants to third-party groups, which it has shown an increased willingness to do for such programs as its Stop the Violence initiative.

“If we are constantly redirecting funds, we need to make sure there’s some accountability,” Kail-Smith said. “It's about making sure we hold people accountable for what they are doing, just as we would any department head.”

The proposal before council envisions adding a “food justice coordinator” position to the city payroll to oversee the program in addition to the third-party group overseeing the distribution of smaller-dollar grants.

Kail-Smith expressed some wariness about hiring for such a position, given that “we already have positions that need to be filled now.”

Gross agreed that tracking the use and effectiveness of the money was important: Indeed, she and fellow Councilor Barbara Warwick questioned a public safety official about Stop the Violence grants at the table just last week.

“You need to collect that information and measure it … and then figure out what worked well, what didn’t work well, what we can do better,” she said.

But she said early evidence suggested that the child care grants did help supplement wages for caregivers and “expand the amount of childcare available. I hope we do more of that.”

Updated: July 5, 2023 at 10:58 AM EDT
This story was updated at 10:57 a.m. on July 5, 2023 to clarify the date that a plan for the food justice fund was submitted to council.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.