More food aid for Pa. seniors, with a hitch

By Alfred Lubrano

In some rare good news for the poor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is more than doubling the emergency food supply specifically for impoverished senior citizens in the Philadelphia area.

But there’s a potential problem: Not all eligible seniors may get the food.

Normally, federal food goes to hunger-relief agencies such as Philabundance, which makes up 40-pound boxes of healthful food and delivers them to pantries and other organizations to be made available each month to seniors 60 and older.

Last year, Philabundance distributed 3,623 boxes to seniors every month. The USDA increase will boost the number to 8,800 a month, an additional 2.5 million pounds of food for the year, according to Philabundance.

This means an additional 5,177 seniors in the area will be eligible to claim the extra food in the program, known as Commodity Supplemental Food.

But these people have to sign up, proving income no higher than 130 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $14,079 annually for a single person.

Many pantries are run by already-overwhelmed elderly women who might not be able to handle the paperwork, or the extra food itself, say antihunger advocates – who note that even good news can hamper the already-fraying social safety net.

To complicate matters further, there’s a ticking clock and a penalty: If new seniors aren’t signed up before June 1, the food could go to another state. And because next year’s allotment depends on this year’s use, it behooves everyone to get more boxes into more seniors’ hands.

Volunteers and space
“Asking organizations to do one more thing has some saying, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t have the space, the volunteers, the time to do it,’ ” said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program, a local nonprofit that distributes food and is working with Philabundance on senior boxes. “Everybody needs to step up and ask, ‘How can I help my community get the food?’ ”

Sheila Christopher, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Regional Food Banks, agreed.

“These little old ladies who run pantries and other food programs need help distributing the extra food,” Christopher said. “We’ll have this food, but we must agree to distribute it every month, or the food goes to another state.”

Underscoring the problem, said Estelle Izzard, administrative assistant at Neighbor to Neighbor Community Development Corp. in Sharon Hill, is that “there are not enough volunteers here. There’s been a tremendous influx of people coming to food banks because of the economy. It’s hard to handle.”

And while volunteers aren’t a problem at the North Light Community Center in Manayunk, space is.

“We can’t store the boxes,” said Megan Terry, outreach coordinator. “We are at maximum capacity for space. We just have nowhere left to go, especially for perishables.”

The boxes for seniors include cheese, vegetables, fruit, juice, pasta, milk, cereal, canned meat, and a nonmeat protein.

All is not lost, however, said Philabundance executive director Bill Clark, who remains optimistic that the extra seniors can be signed up and the extra boxes distributed.

“This went from being a good program to a very important program with the USDA uptick, and it will really make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “It may take a little romancing to get agencies on board, but once they are, our food delivery to them will be as normal as a newspaper delivery.”

And regarding problems of signing up extra seniors, Philabundance spokeswoman Marlo DelSordo said Philabundance could help there as well.

“We can send out staff to help people with the paperwork,” she said. “We can help them with getting the boxes.”

Overall, Pennsylvania will be going from 14,583 boxes a month to 32,674, an increase of 18,091 boxes, Christopher said.

Nearly 320,000 seniors live in poverty in the state – 80,000 of them in the five-county Philadelphia area, she added.

The commodity program was appropriated about $160 million for fiscal 2009, but Congress increased it by $11 million for fiscal 2010, a USDA spokesman said.

N.J. and Delaware
Nationwide, the number of boxes to seniors will be 604,931 a month, a 28 percent increase over last year, the spokesman said.

For the first time, both New Jersey and Delaware will participate in the program this year, local advocates said.

That the program helps has never been a question. “This is nourishing food they give me,” said Helen Figueroa, 69, of Kensington. She has very little money and is hampered by arthritis, and she views her monthly senior box as a blessing. “I just can’t get around. The food is good for my health.”

Anyone with questions about receiving senior boxes, or anyone wishing to volunteer to help process the boxes for agencies is asked to call the Philabundance Food Help Line at 1-800-319-FOOD (3663).

See this article on the Inquirer website.

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