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Butler County food banks, meal services see increased need

Jon Pugliese, of Butler Township, and Raylene Jindra, of Meridian, make a sausage and pasta dish for the Katie’s Kitchen community meal at St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Aug. 4 in Butler. Joseph Ressler/Butler Eagle 8/4/22

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In recent weeks, when manager Justine Brown opens up Katie’s Kitchen food distribution site each Thursday, she regularly notices new faces in the crowd.

The program, sponsored by St. Mark’s and Trinity Lutheran churches, has been serving more than 140 meals on each distribution day, compared to the 80 to 100 meals it used to hand out.

“We’re seeing a lot of new faces we haven’t seen before,” Brown said. “I think that has to do with the cost of living.”

As inflation continues to climb in the region and across the country, causing the cost of living to spike, Brown sees more families seeking assistance.

With the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) at the highest rate in 40 years, low-income families must make tough choices about how to use their disposable income.

The same products cost more, so the value of money, and purchasing power along with it, depreciates. This makes it difficult for families to obtain necessities.

“We’re really seeing an increase in the number of meals we have to serve,” Brown said. “We’re also noticing a lot of children coming to the meals, and that is certainly new.”

Brown said lessened COVID-19 restrictions and children coming in to get meals for disabled family members are reasons why young children and teens are new regulars at food distributions across the county.

Volunteers slice cucumber for a salad dish for the Katie’s Kitchen community meal at St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Thursday in Butler. Joseph Ressler/Butler Eagle 8/4/22
Bracing for increased impact

Food banks and meal distributors across Butler County are adjusting and preparing for additional increases in demand.

Community Partnership Inc., which manages the county’s food bank, has seen the increased need firsthand.

“Our emergency delivery request doubled in the last month,” said Sandra Curry, executive director.

Community Partnership offers emergency delivery for people who have run out of food stamps, signed up for food stamps but haven’t received them yet or simply need extra assistance in obtaining food.

Curry said requests for this service have doubled since June, which aligns with the drastic rise in inflation.

Jeannine Carlson and Jess Carlson, of Butler, cut and bag bread for the Katie’s Kitchen community meal at St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Aug. 4 in Butler. Joseph Ressler/Butler Eagle

Marianne Swanson, a coordination leader for the First English Lutheran Church meal program on Monday nights, understands how inflation can complicate things for families in need.

“People have to make a decision,” Swanson said. “Do I buy gas to go to work? Do I spend money to feed my family?”

At the Lighthouse Foundation, which serves Butler County and northern Allegheny County, food bank director Joe Franciscus said a wide range of people have been coming in for assistance.

“It hasn’t been this mad rush like when the pandemic first started, when nobody really knew what was going on, but we definitely have seen a steady increase,” he said. “It has been a busier summer than past years as well.”

The changing availability of other assistance programs has increased some families’ level of need, he said.

“With some types of assistance programs not being there anymore, I think that has been impactful as well,” he said. “For multiple reasons, one family might be perfectly fine right now, and another family might be on the complete other end of the spectrum where they are not getting any assistance, or not getting enough.”

Inflation also impacts charities’ ability to purchase needed supplies. Food pantries require more materials to account for the exponential increase in demand for charity services, and material costs are on the rise. Funding and donations haven’t always kept up with inflation.

“Our costs (at Katie’s Kitchen) have really increased, especially for packaging materials,” Brown said. “The price of packing has skyrocketed.”

Brown said she used to pay between $13 and $14 for a package of 1,000 bags Katie’s Kitchen uses to pack its meals. Now she spends $22 on the same product.

“All of our products have increased in price, so that is certainly something we have to look at,” Brown said.

A box of corn is pictured during the preparation for the Katie’s Kitchen community meal at St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Thursday in Butler. Joseph Ressler/Butler Eagle 8/4/22
Manpower not an issue

While families and charities alike are struggling with the burdens of inflation, Curry said Butler County residents have risen to the occasion to help their neighbors. Lack of manpower hasn’t been as big of a problem, she said.

“If people know that other people need assistance, I think that people are very generous,” Curry said. “Even if they can’t give financially, they’ll give their time.”

Volunteer service has not been scarce at First English Lutheran Church, either, Swanson said. She sometimes has needed to turn away volunteers because the church has enough for the day.

“We’ve never had a problem with volunteers. We have people wanting to volunteer,” Swanson said. “We’re very blessed. The community of Butler has been overwhelmingly supportive to those who have such need.”

Swanson said she is appreciative of the help volunteers and donors continue to provide.

“We are all so grateful to be able to help out in so many ways,” Swanson said. “We also are being served by those who come to us with their stories, with their gratitude, with their smiles. That gives us so much, and we are grateful for them who come.”

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