Many people are eager to give back during the holiday season, collecting toys for children in low-income families or serving Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen.
Jay Poliziani, director of North Side Common Ministries said the organization definitely sees an uptick in the number of people who want to volunteer this time of year.
“Often people call because they want to serve a holiday meal, and that’s not what we’re really able to do,” he said. “People sign up for those holiday meals a year in advance.”
Poliziani said staff steers people toward other volunteer opportunities, like serving lunch to the homeless or helping out in the food pantry. But he said hunger and poverty are year-round issues, so the organization needs help year-round as well.
“We provide services here for literally hundreds of thousands of people a year and that’s with just eight staff people. So it’s completely not possible for us to do that without the volunteers,” he said. “Keeping them with us after the holidays is our goal; trying to make it an experience they want to continue to be a part of.”
Poliziani said increasingly, the people using North Side services – such as the homeless shelter, soup kitchen and food pantry – are not unemployed or living on government subsidies. Often they are working full- or part-time, but just can’t seem to make ends meet.
According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 14.6 percent of Pennsylvanians are food insecure, which means they lack convenient and consistent access to healthy, affordable food. The food bank also reports that 33 percent of households with “very low food security” include one or more full-time workers, while 13 percent include someone working part-time.
But some of the greatest tools society has for fighting food insecurity actually aren’t food banks and soup kitchens, said Emily Cleath, communications coordinator at Just Harvest, a local non-profit that advocates for those struggling with hunger and poverty.
“Folks should keep in mind that only one in 20 bags of food that go to those in need come from charities,” she said. “The rest are provided through federal nutrition programs, so if we want to eliminate hunger then we need to tell our federal and state legislators to boost the funding for and lower the barriers to those critical government programs.”
Cleath highlighted the Child Nutrition Act, which provides for breakfast and lunch in schools across the country, summer food programs, the women infants and children nutrition program and more. It is expected to be re-authorized as part of the federal budget process.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania has introduced two child nutrition bills, one to expand access to summer meal programs and another to provide healthy food for children in home daycare programs. Both are currently in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committee.
At the state level, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is reviewing Pennsylvania’s current nutrition programs to find ways to improve them. Locally, the City of Pittsburgh has introduced the GrubUp program, which provides after-school and summer meals to school age children.