Some of the most defining images of the COVID-19 pandemic showed lines of cars filled with families and children as far as the eye could see. Nearly 40 percent of those families were seeking food assistance for the first time, revealing just how vulnerable anyone can be to hunger. Many continue to be just one missed paycheck away from financial hardship.
For the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, federal support and financial donations allowed us to keep our partner agencies and local food pantries stocked with quality, nutritious foods, including millions of pounds of fresh produce. In fact, this support meant that we never had to turn away anyone who needed assistance. Our partners stayed open, switched gears to protect volunteers and clients, and delivered hope to more than 450,000 people.
Our country is anxious to return to “normal” and focus on rebuilding. While signs of recovery are encouraging and many of our neighbors are working hard to get back on their feet, true recovery will take years. Thousands will remain vulnerable to hunger, especially in rural communities and in communities of color that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. With rising food prices, the challenges for many people trying to provide for themselves and their families have only increased.
In the budget reconciliation bill currently under consideration, Congress has an opportunity to address the current crisis of hunger among children in a meaningful way. The bill will extend food assistance to low-income students in schools and childcare centers, even during closures, such as those experienced during the pandemic and in the summer through the Summer/Pandemic-EBT program. Building on this program will allow assistance to continue while making sure programs can withstand future closures.
Our nation’s food banks also need federal assistance if we are going to continue to meet the needs of all people in our community. It is critical that Congress address growing capacity shortages in our country’s charitable food system. Investments are desperately needed to modernize and expand facilities, improve cold storage capacity, and replace aging equipment and vehicles.
We need to support local farms as well as our neighbors who need a helping hand. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) — which provides nearly 30 percent of healthy and nutritious food from our farms to food banks — needs an additional $900 million investment for food purchases to ensure food banks can continue to keep up with the demand and serve all families facing hunger. This assistance is critical for older Americans with lower incomes and others in need of emergency food assistance. The supply chain issues that left empty shelves during the pandemic affected food banks too.
These nutrition investments will be crucial for the estimated 337,000 people in central Pennsylvania who remain vulnerable to hunger due to the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Central Pennsylvania is a caring and generous community. We take care of one another when times are tough. To ensure our neighbors facing hunger can put food on the table while we rebuild our economy and provide support to families to prevent food insecurity in the first place, Congress must act now.
We are, after all, better together.
Joe Arthur is the executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.