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County transfers food program to Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

The county commissioners on Wednesday, May 22, transferred the county food assistance programs from Community Partnership, which has run the program for the last two years, to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

The programs are the Emergency Food Assistance and the State Food Purchase programs. The food bank already ran the county’s senior box food program, and it handles food distribution for 10 other counties in Western Pennsylvania.

The food bank will deliver food to the county’s 33 food pantries, some of which already receive food from the food bank, and private donations to the pantries remain important, officials said.

Leslie Osche, chairwoman of the commission, said the top priority is for the county to continue providing food to residents who need the assistance.

She said the commissioners and the food bank will address any issue that arises, and the food bank is planning to meet with the pantries.

Osche said the commissioners are grateful to Community Partnership for running the programs. The agency can now use its Community Service Block Grant funds in other ways to help the pantries, work with the food bank and address poverty issues.

“Over the past two years, we’ve really been evaluating the economies of scale in the sense of what it takes to operate the food assistance program countywide with all the pantries,” Commissioner Kim Geyer said.

Economies of scale regarding food storage, transportation, staffing, program costs and reporting were considered before the change was proposed, Geyer said.

She said the food bank has the resources, capacity and computer software for reporting to operate the food programs.

State and federal food assistance contracts run through the county, which is required to submit reports on the programs to state and federal agencies, Geyer said. The program is audited, she said.

“This is going to provide our pantries with more flexibility to chose the food they want and need. Each pantry will have the opportunity that they don’t have now to customize food selections to meet needs and wants of their communities,” Geyer said.

She said 40% of the food the food bank will provide is fresh, and fresh food is lacking in the current programs.

Sheryl Kelly, who works in the food program in the planning department, said the only concern pantry officials raised during early discussions was about driving to Pittsburgh to pick up their food, which they won’t have to do.

“This has been an ongoing discussion about using the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank,” Commissioner Kevin Boozel said. “This is the best decision.”

Geyer said food storage needs and buying equipment such as forklifts and tractors made running the current program not feasible for the county.

“The reality was they’re out of space for food,” Osche said.

She said the commissioners and Community Partnership have looked for a larger storage warehouse but couldn’t find any place that was affordable. Demand for the food programs is growing, and storage capacity has become an issue, she said.

Geyer said it is difficult to find repairmen able to fix the freezers in the warehouse because of the age of the freezers.

“We could only accept so much frozen food,” Geyer said.

“We do operate at a different economy of scale,” said Erin Kelly, director of partner and distribution programs for the food bank.

She said Butler County is in its service area and the food bank has a responsibility to serve the county.

“We’re committed to bringing all the resources that we have to bear on serving the people of Butler County who require food assistance service,” Kelly said. She said the food bank will work with the food pantries in the county.

Boozel said Community Partnership is spending a lot of money to staff the programs, and he hopes the organization reviews its finances and finds other ways to serve people living in poverty.

He said this is the appropriate time to make the change because the county contract with the Community Partnership ends June 30.

Among the seven motions the commissioners approved to enact the change were motions to terminate the lease the county has with Community Partnership for a county-owned warehouse where it stores food for the program, and to terminate the equipment use agreement with Community Partnership.

Solicitor Julie Graham said the county plans to ask the pantries if they want any of the equipment.

In addition, the commissioners modified a memorandum of understanding that allows Community Partnership to continue to use space in a different county building for administration and its other programs.

Sandy Curry, Community Partnership director, said she has concerns about how the change will impact the food pantry network, and that all the changes will not be positive for residents.

Use of the programs increased by 500% in the last year, she said.

Curry said the organization knew the change was coming, but will continue supporting the network and working with the food bank. The change will hopefully strengthen the relationship between Community Partnership and the food bank, she said.

She said Community Partnership will use the block grant to provide other food access programs and continue serving residents living in poverty.

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