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April 16, 2009

Pitt Partnership for Food: Hard times hit home

Collection boxes for Pitt’s “Partnership for Food” drive have a prominent place in the reception area in front of Kathleen Allport’s desk on the sixth floor of Sennott Square. The computer science department secretary has marshaled the department’s donations for the food drive for several years, even fanning the flames of competition that pit comp sci faculty and staff against graduate students in a friendly challenge to see which group will donate the most non-perishable items to benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

It never occurred to Allport that she might find herself in need of its services. “I never gave it a thought,” she said, thinking, “That’s for poor people.”

However, in spite of her full-time job and part-time work cleaning houses on weekends, for about six months last year Allport found herself among the clients of the food pantry at Rosedale United Methodist Church in Verona — one of some 350 agencies in Allegheny County that are supplied by the Duquesne-based food bank.

Allport, 62, said she was a stay-at-home mom until divorce forced her into her first “real job” at a card store in 1996. A series of opportunities brought her to Pitt in 2001. She began as a receptionist in the School of Arts and Sciences dean’s office before moving to computer science, where initially she was a department receptionist before being promoted recently to department secretary.

She found herself in debt after treatment for breast cancer in 2003. Allport said she continued to work during her illness but co-pays for doctors and prescriptions added up. In addition, in the confusion that accompanied her chemotherapy, some bills didn’t get paid.

Although her credit had been good, that all changed after she began juggling her bills by paying them with credit cards, amassing a debt of about $20,000. “I’m trying to dig myself out of it,” she said. Cutting expenses includes clipping coupons and buying clothing at yard sales. “I don’t shop,” said Allport, who shares her home with her adult son. Although she’s eliminated about half the debt, “At times I feel I’m never going to get those paid off.”

She didn’t apply for help from the food pantry until a friend lost her job. They agreed to go together to see whether they both might qualify. “I wasn’t sure I’d be eligible,” she said, adding, “I wouldn’t have gone by myself.”

She was surprised to find that she qualified —just barely— for food pantry assistance. “I had mixed feelings,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t getting paid a lot, but, oh wow, ‘I’m among the poor’” was difficult. “You look around and think, ‘Do I really need this? Has it come to this? Am I that poor?’ It was hard.”

When she went to the food pantry on her twice-monthly visits, she found that need came in a variety of faces: “I saw a lot of senior citizens, a lot of women with kids, a lot of single guys. It was always packed.

“I did feel uncomfortable because I was working full-time,” but no one ever made an issue of it, Allport said.
Although her friend has run out of unemployment benefits and continues to be served by the food pantry, Allport’s promotion put her “just a squeak over” the income limits this year.

The experience gave her a new appreciation for the food bank’s work. “I think that’s why I’m really gung-ho this year about the food drive,” she said. “I see how they’re struggling there and how much they need the food. The economy is bad this year.”

Steve Zupcic, director of Pitt’s annual food drive, said Allport is not alone among Pitt employees who have needed the help of the food bank to make ends meet.

Although he has no way of knowing how many Pitt staffers might visit their neighborhood food pantries, Zupcic said the start of the food drive always prompts a handful of calls from members of the University community. “Every year I get two to four direct inquiries from among our staff” seeking information on how to receive help, he said.

Pitt has been among the top supporters of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, having contributed more than 2 million units of food in more than two decades of support. (Donations are calculated not by the number of items, but in “units” loosely based on an item’s nutritional value.) Last year, Pitt ranked No. 4 among Pittsburgh area employers (behind UPMC, United States Steel Corp. and Industrial Scientific Corp.) with a total of 285,294 units, Zupcic said.

Although totals for this year’s collection won’t be known until final food donations are collected in May, a new online giving option enables organizers to get a sneak peek at some of the progress. Zupcic said that as of mid-Wednesday 51,429 units of food had been donated online in the University’s virtual collection at — an amount that will be doubled by the chancellor’s challenge match. (See April 2 University Times.)

The need is especially great this year, said Ivy Ero, director of the food bank’s educational programs. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s mission is simple: “To feed the hungry among us.” But Ero told Faculty Assembly last week that accomplishing the mission is a challenge. “We are struggling with less food donations and more people who need us,” she said.

As part of the University food drive kickoff, Ero has made presentations to a number of campus organizations including the Staff Association Council (SAC), Senate Council and the Senate community relations committee (CRC) in recent weeks.

She said 85,000 people in Allegheny County suffer the effects of hunger — sometimes in the form of parents skipping meals so their children can eat or children relying on school meals to supplement meager meals at home.
In introducing Ero at the April 7 Faculty Assembly meeting, CRC co-chair Wes Rohrer noted, “Given the fact that we are in very difficult economic circumstances we can expect that is going to be more of a problem regionally and globally.”

Ero urged Pitt faculty, staff and students to support the food drive in whatever way they can.

“Donate to Pitt’s Partnership for Food,” she told Faculty Assembly. “Bag it, bring it. If you don’t want to carry it to work, go online to our virtual food drive. Shop there. You can buy a lot more groceries online than you can at the grocery store.”

The food bank is not only looking for food and money. “We need time,” she said, stressing that volunteer help is essential in preparing some 400,000 pounds of groceries for distribution each month.

Ero said the food bank has created “Get Help. Give Help” cards that offer contact information for the food bank and request donations of food, money or time from those who are able. “We’re out there asking for your support but we’re also out there in the community looking for more people to serve at a time when we have less inventory. Local food pantries are serving growing numbers of the unemployed as well as those who have jobs but can’t make ends meet.

“Most people who use our services are working men and women. Many more have lost their jobs and are on the unemployment rolls — people who have never been unemployed before in their lives and don’t know where to turn and who to ask for help.”

In addition, many people are underemployed or their work hours have been cut. “The majority of our customers make minimum wage. They have no medical benefits and it’s impossible to do everything,” she said, adding that many of them set aside grocery money, intending to shop rather than use a food pantry. Then other needs arise to thwart the plan. “There’s a child that needs a doctor’s visit, so you take the grocery money and make the doctor’s visit,” Ero said.

In response to rising local need, Ero said the food bank has formed an outreach team to help make people aware of benefits that are available from other sources. She said team members have found many people who qualify for food stamps are unaware that they are eligible. Others are reluctant to apply. “People don’t fill that document out because it’s eight pages of two-sided copies. It’s intimidating if you don’t read well; it’s intimidating if your pride has been pushed aside. It’s intimidating and humbling if that’s your last line of defense,” Ero said.

Although the food bank’s main mission is to supply soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters and other agencies that distribute food to some 120,000 individuals in southwestern Pennsylvania, in March it designated the fourth Thursday of each month to distribute groceries directly from its warehouse in the RIDC Park in Duquesne.
The initial response exceeded organizers’ expectations. “We had plans for 500 customers. We had 700 individuals who for a 5:30 distribution started to show up at 3 in the afternoon,” Ero said, adding that many recipients walked four blocks from the nearest bus stop and crossed a busy highway in pouring rain to get to the industrial park to collect their food.

The fourth Thursday distributions will continue through summer and could be extended if additional funding is found to support them.

Pitt’s Volunteer Pool has pledged support for the distribution days. Free shuttle buses for volunteers depart campus at 3:45 p.m. and return around 8 p.m. Sign-up information is available at

SAC plans to select a date for its members to volunteer as a group on the project.

CRC member Tracy Soska, a professor in the School of Social Work, said faculty, staff, students and administrators volunteered side by side for the March distribution.

Ero said the initial opportunity drew some 40 volunteers, but more are needed to help recipients, some of whom are elderly or disabled, get the 40-50 pound grocery bags to their vehicles or transit stops.

Zupcic noted that volunteers are welcome to bring family members age 12 and over to help. “It’s a good life experience for teenage children,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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