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Pittsburgh grapples with food insecurity

From the Pennsylvania Legislative Service

Food insecurity is the state of being unable to obtain a sufficient amount of healthy food on the daily basis. Nationally, 12.9 percent of the population are food insecure. In Pennsylvania 12.5 percent of the population fits the category, but in the City of Pittsburgh an alarming 21 percent of residents are food insecure.

The reasons for this are complex and vary from family to family, but after a nearly two hour post-agenda of testimony before Pittsburgh City Council last week, hunger advocates agree it will require a systemic change to address food insecurity in Pittsburgh.

Shelley Danko-Day, the Urban Agriculture and Food Policy specialist for the City of Pittsburgh, told council residents struggle to obtain food for three main reasons: the inability to afford food, the inability to store or cook foods, and food system stability.

"The past century has seen a rise in the amount of food produced in the US, however that food isn't always equally distributed. And what is distributed is not always of equal quality," Danko-Day said.

According to Danko-Day, in the case of Pittsburgh, between grocery stores moving to more affluent areas in the 1970s and 1980s and the ease of obtaining unhealthy foods, the poorest areas of the city are most at risk for hunger. This comes with a host of consequences.

"The rate of obesity in Pittsburgh is higher than the national average,” Danko-Day said. “Adults with diabetes in the county is higher than the national average, adults with heart disease is above what the state and county are."

She added that children face special risks such as developmental impairments, social and behavioral problems, and struggle academically. This adds up to a city not very livable.

"Cities cannot function without the basic without the basic essentials in life: air, water, and food," she said.

The connection between hunger and inequality was something all panelists agreed needed to be addressed systematically, but in the meantime Jennifer England, senior program director of Food Recovery Operations for 412 Food Rescue, stressed the importance of finding short-term solutions as well as ones for the long-term.

“People are not hungry in the long-run, they’re hungry in the right now,” England said. “So while we work on the systemic issues we have to make sure people have food.”

One way of ensuring that people have food in the short-term, England said, was to cut down on food waste.

"We do a better job of feeding landfills than people," England said.

England testified that nationally 40 percent of food produced in the US goes to waste despite being edible.  Her organization attempts to address food waste through a food rescue program which takes unsellable food from restaurants and grocery stores and redistributes it to those in need.

And yet, although England said decreasing food waste was a positive step reducing food insecurity. she urged council not to ignore hunger being a “consequence” of poverty.

"It's important that people get jobs and people have jobs to pay a living wage,” England said.

Ken Regel, executive director of Just Harvest, was inclined to agree.  He testified that if council and other forms of local government wanted to tackle food insecurity, systemic inequality needed to be addressed.

"It is impossible to disentangle the causes of hunger from poverty,” Regel explained. “If we have a city where housing is unaffordable, If we have a city where because of state law the tax system is inherently regressive, we will have a city where people don’t have access to food.”

Furthermore, Regel added that although it was admirable to want to embark on new hunger programs, the city should first focus on making existing programs such as the summer meal program work better.

"Before we come up with a hundred ideas on how we're going to fight hunger, the city needs to get its own house in order,” Regel said.

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