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12 Months of Giving: Food Bank of State College

by on December 23, 2013 3:06 PM

We just wrapped up another holiday season — a time marked with amazing charitable acts. But, as many seem to express each yuletide season, why can’t we commit to those acts of kindness and giving throughout the year?

As part of each issue in 2014, Town&Gown will profile an organization, group, or individual who does noteworthy work to help others — and who also could use your help in aiding those in need. Each month, you’ll have an opportunity to read about these people and organizations who are a little “under the radar" in our communities, and maybe be able and even be inspired to provide some help to them.

This month, the series begins with a look at the Food Bank of State College. If you have a suggestion for our “12 Months of Giving” series, e-mail dpenc@barashmedia.com.

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A single mother of teenage boys working three jobs to make ends meet. A family of four, with the father unemployed and sick with leukemia; the mother working, taking care of him, and struggling to pay for his medicine. A single man, physically disabled, who cannot work and with no family to care for him. A woman living alone, battling cancer while trying to survive on very little to eat.

These residents of Centre County, struggling to stretch their already-tight resources, might be neighbors, co-workers, or friends. The Food Bank of the State College Area, Inc., a food-distribution facility serving people in the State College and upper Bald Eagle Valley school districts, has served all of these people and many more.

“There is a definite need in the community,” says Linda Brown, a Food Bank of the State College Area volunteer and board member. “Food is a basic need, and the food bank is making a real difference for people here. There are so many stories that touch me — seniors that can’t make it on their allotted income, families facing difficult circumstances. I’m happy to volunteer here and help the community in some small way.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, hunger in the US is at its highest point since 1994, when the agency started keeping thorough records. The US Census Bureau reports that in 2012, 46.5 million Americans were living under the poverty line. While State College enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in Pennsylvania, dwindling jobs and high prices felt all over the country also are being felt in Centre County. Unforeseen circumstances such as illness, unemployment, and disability can happen overnight, to anyone.

Currently located on West Hamilton Avenue, the food bank, a United Way agency, will move to a bigger facility at 1321 South Atherton Street by spring. Carol Pioli, executive director, explains that the purchase of the new building will allow all the food to be under one roof. Right now, the food bank is renting two places — one where clients can pick up food and another where the maority of the food is stored. The new location will enable the food bank to set up a consumer-choice model — similar to a grocery store — with food out on display, and a walk-in refrigerator and freezer.

Having just celebrated its 30th anniversary in State College, the food bank has come a long way since it opened in the basement of St. Andrew’s Church in downtown State College in 1982.

“We received our nonprofit status in 1996, and moved to the West Hamilton Avenue location in 2007, but we’ve still had a need for a larger facility. The board has worked hard to find the right building, and with the help of our wonderful supporters, we’re able to move into our own space and keep everything under one roof,” Pioli says.

There are more than 200 food banks in the United States, providing 2.5 billion pounds of food to those in need every year, according to the USDA. In Centre County, area residents donated almost 300,000 pounds of food to the State College Area food bank in 2012, by way of food drives and walk-in donations.

“While we’re grateful to receive so many donations, unfortunately, a lot of that food had expired,” Pioli says. “People purge their kitchen cabinets and drop off their food, which is wonderful — we just need them to check the expiration dates first.”

Additionally, the food bank receives food from the Federal Emergency Food Assistance Program, State Food Purchase Program, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank (Feeding America Program), and two food drives organized by Letter Carri- ers in the spring and the Boy Scouts in the fall. Food from these organizations, and donations, fed about 821 households, or about 2,126 people, Pioli says. About 37 percent of these homes in- cluded children, and 10 percent were for people over the age of 60.

In order for someone to receive food, Pioli says clients have to be referred to the food bank by one of the food bank’s partner agencies: Community Help Center, Salvation Army of State College, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Strawberry Fields, Women’s Resource Center, and Housing Transitions.

“We serve the unemployed, underemployed, mental and physically disabled,” says Pioli, “but we’re more than a food bank, our clients are family. We know them, they know us. I’m here to help people, but they have helped me, too.”

She says that she read in the newspaper an obituary for the parent of one of her clients. She put a note in the file, and when the client stopped in to pick up her food, a volunteer told her they were all sorry for her loss.

“She was overwhelmed with this kindness, and appreciated the fact that we recognized she was going through a particularly painful time at that moment,” Pioli says.

Recently, Pioli was at a meeting where another participant pulled her aside to give praise to the bank.

“He had been employed full time in corporate America for a number of years, until this fall when his company downsized and reduced him to part-time status without benefits,” she explains. “Faced with the dilemma of prioritizing their ba- sic needs, a friend suggested that he and his wife contact the State College food bank. They have been receiving monthly distributions, and he just wanted to express his gratitude to the food bank for the bountiful Thanksgiving distribution and their monthly distributions.”

Pioli explains that when people become clients, they receive services once every 30 days, but during the holidays in November and December, extra holiday bags and turkeys are distributed, as well. The quantity of the groceries corresponds with the number of people in the household. In addition to nonperishable foods, every grocery order contains shelf-stable milk, fresh eggs, and frozen meats. Fresh vegetables, day-old breads, personal-hygiene products, cleaning products, baby food, and baby supplies are provided if needed.

Pioli and Missy Garvin, the operations coordinator, are the only paid staff. The food bank relies heavily on its 60 regular volunteers who help pack bags, sort donations, pick up donations, and more. Pioli reports that their volunteers logged about 8,010 hours in 2012.

The mission of the food bank is “to provide emergency food to needy people in the State College area and to assist the network food pantries in Centre County,” but they try to help in additional ways, too.

In May, the food bank partners with master gardeners who donate plates left over from their plant sale, which includes a variety of vegetable plants. The food bank does a Toys for Tots drive during the holidays with help from a Marine Corps Reserve group, and gifts are distributed at a holiday dinner put on with help from the Elks Club. And the food bank takes donations of more than just food — toiletries, cleaning supplies, coffee, and tea, all of these items are needed throughout the year.

Pioli, who has been at the food bank for almost two years, says that July-August is the hardest time of year for food banks because school is out and people are on vacation — most organizations are not doing food drives, so the food bank’s supplies run low. She says that it would be great if a few organizations could do food drives during those months, and in February-March, another slow time of the year for the food bank.

In addition to food items, the food bank takes monetary donations for food purchasing. Pioli says it costs the food bank $25 to buy a week’s worth of food, which includes fresh milk, eggs, and frozen meat, for a family of two. Money donated can be in cash, credit card, through the food bank’s secure Web site, gift cards, and gift certificates to help purchase food. In addition, the food bank collects miscellaneous donations such as office supplies, plastic trash bags, 1-gallon food-storage bags, plastic/latex gloves, hand sanitizer, and outdoor work gloves.

Pioli says volunteers also are welcome, especially during the holidays and in the summer, when there is greater need for help. 

For more information on the Food Bank of the State College Area, Inc., visit http://foodbank.centreconnect.org/.

 



Rebekka Coakley is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.
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