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Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank Takes on Added Economic Challenges

Through tough times, the organization pushes forward to end hunger.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank continues to put food on the tables of people in need across the region even with the number of families served growing every month because of an economy riddled with layoffs, unemployment benefits running out and other economic challenges.

Serving 120,000 people per month, according to Iris Valanti, public relations director for the food bank, the organization has accommodated 3,500 new families every month this year.

Baldwin-Whitehall residents are no stranger to the food bank. In fact, there are four Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank locations in Baldwin-Whitehall, including , ,  and .

to read about Baldwin-Whitehall Patch Editor 's experience volunteering at the Whitehall Church of Christ location in April.

“We are seeing the results of some layoffs and unemployment and also underemployment—people making less wages or working part-time,” Valanti said. “The economy has definitely made a difference.”

In 2009, the food bank was serving 1,500 new families per month. In 2010, that number grew to 2,500 new families per month.

“I read the other day that half of Pennsylvania's unemployed people have run out of unemployment benefits,” Valanti said. “People have hit that wall.”

Add budget cuts to the food bank's finances, and it's been a tough couple of years for the organization overall.

“Money is tight, but our community has been wildly supportive,” Valanti said. “People share what they have and have been very generous.

“Currently, we are meeting financial goals as much as we can, but food goes out as fast as it comes in. We are hanging in there.”

Donated food from distributors is diminishing because of the rising cost of gas in a shaky economy. Food banks now need to buy more food.

“We are buying 35 to 40 percent of food now,” Valanti said. “The downside of that is we have to raise more money. The upside is we can buy more healthy food and buy large quantities at a good price to make our donations go as far as possible.”

Every year, the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are largely devoted to food, show a spike in donations for a variety of reasons. There's more awareness about hunger, and people continue to remember those who don't have everything that they want.

“It's the giving season,” Valanti said, “and also, a lot of people save donations for the end of the year.

“We appreciate people thinking about us, but it's nice when they think about us in January and February, as well. Sitting down for a monster Thanksgiving dinner certainly reminds you that not everyone has that.”

After the holidays, that support slows down but is countered with year-round corporate donations and support. Valanti said that there are many ways that people can help whether it's the holidays or the middle of summer.

“The great thing about it is everyone has a part to play in eliminating hunger in our region,” she said. “If they don't have money, they can give time. People organize benefits and events. It's not just about writing your own check; it's about giving on an ongoing basis.”

Lisa Nuccetelli, executive director of the Greater Washington County Food Bank, said that donations stay steady through the end of January, while a month-long drop-off in those donations occurs in February. In March, the local farm bureau holds a food drive, which adds support to the food bank after donations slow down.

“Food donations and monetary donations provide us a way to continue what we are doing,” Nuccetelli said. “We pick up a good number of new registered clients during the holidays who continue to be clients during the year. Our numbers inflate during the holidays, and they stay that way throughout the year.”

The Greater Washington County Food Bank serves 3,800 households per month. This year, Nuccetelli said that many past donors now need help.

“A lot of people who have lost their jobs, who have dealt with the economy up to this point, then look for help over the holidays,” she said.

“These are clients in the past who have been donors, but with the rising costs of gas and those issues, this year they are knocking on our door.”

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank receives more than 10,000 volunteers per year—all of whom are needed.

Every little bit counts, Valanti said.

“We have kids running food drives, lemonade stands and flea markets because they want to do something,” she said.

The top food donations needed include peanut butter, tuna fish and high-protein canned items.

Heading into 2012, the challenges remain the same, all stemming from the status of the economy and restraints in government funding.

“Everyone is in their deficit-cutting mood,” Valanti said, “and a lot of programs are on the block. Eighteen percent of our support comes from grants and programs, and that's not a lot. But it means something.

“We lost $130,000 in emergency services grants from the county, which is also federal, but that's a lot of money.”

The main obstacle: filling those gaps with new areas of financial support.

“Our challenge is maintaining and replacing government support and general factors of the economy that will bring us even more clients,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the .

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