Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Food in Norristown 3: Emergency Food

Actually, the Temple U. report covered Urban Agricultural next, but I'm going a bit out of order because I think Norristown's agriculture is what could help tie everything together.

Emergency Food means our network of food pantries, soup kitchens and programs like Meals On Wheels, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and the Summer Feeding Program that I mentioned under food in our schools.

The good news is that Norristown has an extensive network of emergency food services and lots of volunteers in community groups giving their time to make sure hungry people are fed.

The vulnerabilities of these programs include a constant struggle for funding, space, and reliable food sources. Few of the food pantries have refrigeration, so they mostly offer canned and dry goods, with no fresh produce, dairy or meats. Many of the soup kitchens have limited hours, so on certain days and evenings, there's no place in town offering food at all.

Here are the recommendations that Temple made:

1. Establish Benefit Centers. This usually means having counselors on hand at food pantries and soup kitchens to assist families in filing paperwork for benefit programs like SNAP, WIC, unemployment, etc. One counselor could actually work at many different places, showing up once a week when the pantry or kitchen is open. The counselors could also help with job placement to get the family off of food assistance. However, it sounds to me like the counselors would have to be employed rather than volunteers, and nothing in the report explains who they'd work for and where the money would come from for salaries. It would mean more reliance on hard-to-come-by grants. Temple also seemed unaware that we have organizations like the OIC doing job training and placement.

2. Create and Maintain Gardens at food pantries and soup kitchens, so these organizations can add fresh, local produce to their offerings. Participants using the pantries or kitchens could help plant weed and harvest, and benefit center counselors can instruct how SNAP benefits can be used to set up a home garden. On the service, this seems to me to be a lovely Utopian idea, however, the volunteers at our pantries and kitchens that I know already have a huge workload--vegetable gardens need daily watering and tending. Temple suggests rainbarrels for providing water, but gardens need to be out in the open and rain barrels near a downspout. The rain can't magically move from one to the other. And that's assuming that there's a decent patch of empty land in a sunny location near a pantry or kitchen and permissions can be gotten to use it. We might do better to have other volunteer groups who'll set up and maintain gardens, then deliver the produce to pantries on distribution days. I'll talk more about this when I cover urban agriculture.

3. Maintain Standard Times and Locations. Because most of our emergency food services rely on volunteers, there are a lot of gaps in when food is available. Few pantries are open after 5 pm, yet for low income families where both parents work, evening's the only time available. Not listed in the recommendation, but mentioned elsewhere in the report is the idea that pantries that are near each other could coordinate times, so food is available more days and hours. That seems the best recommendation, given the limitations of a volunteer labor force.

4. Apply for Grants. Temple states "There are many different sources of funding that could support the emergency food efforts in Norristown, such as grants and other government and private funding." However, they don't list resources. Most non-profits have no clue how to apply for grants or what's available, and they're too busy doing the work at hand to look into it--looking up grants online is often time-consuming and confusing. Really, this recommendation is useless without more information.

So, that's where Norristown stands on feeding our hungry. We actually do more than most communities in the county. Then again, we have more poor people, too. One thing that I think could help is publicizing better where our food panties are, so people can make donations. There's a decent list at http://www.cadcom.org/Montgomery-County-Cupboard-List/58/ though I know there are others, like the Patrician Society Food Cupboard at Green and Chestnut, which is where I bring extra canned and dry goods when I have them. And of course, they all need and appreciate monetary donations and new volunteers.

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