Harrisburg – April 30, 2021 – At the request of Pennsylvania State Senators Judy Schwank (D- Berks), Tina Tartaglione (D- Philadelphia), and Sharif Street (D- Philadelphia), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a virtual policy hearing to discuss the issue of food insecurity in Pennsylvania.

“The pandemic has exposed many issues over the last year, but perhaps most striking of all is the issue of food insecurity,” Schwank said. “I know few of us will forget seeing the long lines of families waiting for food assistance. Today we learned how our local food banks met the extraordinary challenge of feeding our communities and what we need to consider moving forward as the issue of food insecurity is far from solved.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding said that reports compiled by the organization Feeding America show that the number of Pennsylvanians facing food insecurity in 2020 grew substantially to 1.77 million individuals, an increase of 30 percent. The number of children in Pennsylvania facing food insecurity rose to 537,080, an increase of nearly 40 percent in just one year.

“Food Insecurity is defined as the lack of access to enough food for a healthy and active life and at its core equals hunger. Across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is estimated that 11% of the population is food insecure with the highest percentage right here in Philadelphia county,” Dixie James, President and COO of Einstein Healthcare Network, said.

Second Lady of Pennsylvania, Gisele Fetterman, also testified at the hearing about her work to address food insecurity through Free Store 15104 and 412 Food Rescue.

“My work exists because of failures in policy,” Fetterman said.

She said that making a state law to prevent perfectly good food from going to waste, as numerous other states have done, would help to address food insecurity by redirecting resources, and also addressing the environmental impact of discarding perfectly good food that could otherwise feed populations.

“We know it is not a lack of food, it is how food gets distributed,” Dr. Kathy Reeves, Senior Associate Dean of Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and Director at the Center for Urban Bioethics and Professor of Pediatrics Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, said.

Dr. Reeves also advocated in her testimony to treat food as a prescription to address the overall health of Pennsylvanians.

“Food insecurity is intertwined with so many of Pennsylvania’s chronic ills, problems like poverty and health disparities that have been exacerbated by the lingering coronavirus pandemic,” Senator Tartaglione said. “This thorough conversation is imperative as we seek to make nutrition universally accessible in the Commonwealth.”

Loree Jones, CEO of Philabundance which serves five counties in Pennsylvania, said that 40 percent of the 60 percent increase Philabundance has seen in need this past year were people using the emergency food system for the first time. She said that Feeding America is projecting that nationally more than 42 million people, including 13 million children, may experience food insecurity due to COVID-19.

Secretary Redding said that additional funding to provide food in the pandemic has come from both federal and state resources, providing additional funding for United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) foods purchases through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). As of April 17, 2021, food banks in Pennsylvania report having distributed in excess of 2.4 million of these food boxes, weighing more than 51.5 million pounds.

“The lessons learned over this past year have provided us a fresh lens to look at our grant programs to ensure they are equitable and meeting the needs of those we serve. The gaps in the system have been highlighted such as meat processing delays and lack of access to fresh foods. We will continue to enhance our current programs and investigate additional ways to address these needs,” Sec. Redding said. “Additionally, expanding broadband access throughout the commonwealth will assist in providing equal access to resources and e-commerce platforms.”

Scott Cawthern, Acting Deputy Secretary for the Office of Income Maintenance at the PA Dept. of Human Services, also testified about the work that the Dept. of Human Services did in expanding services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how increased and continued investment in these programs will address food insecurity and improve long-term health outcomes for Pennsylvanians.

“On the state level, we would like to see more coordination between all the food 9 systems in the state including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), SNAP, NSLP, and others to ensure that eligible families are receiving all the food assistance for which they qualify and to ensure that children and families receive the nutrition supports as they grow,” Cawthern said.

Jay Worrall, President of Helping Harvest Food Bank, testified to the importance of community partners in the distribution of food and resources to families and how increasing funding for its signature food insecurity programs, the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP), and the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS), and increase the flexibility for how those funds can be expended would assist even more Pennsylvanians in need.

“Unfortunately, many Pennsylvanians have been and still are struggling to meet their basic needs. Working families across our state face countless situations, such as jobs paying only poverty wages due to wealth inequality and corporate greed, food deserts, unexpected bills for car maintenance or medical treatment, layoffs, and now a global pandemic, all of which cause temporary or permanent financial instability, food insecurity and hunger. Pennsylvania food insecurity rates have increased from 11.1% in 2018 to over 33% as of March 2020.  According to the PA Department of Agriculture, before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1.53 million Pennsylvanians endured chronic hunger every day, including 478,500 older Pennsylvanians and about 437,000 children,” Sen. Katie Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said. “Food insecurity makes it impossible to survive let alone thrive.  Every human should have guaranteed access to reliable and nutritious meals.  We need to act urgently to end food insecurity in Pennsylvania and across our nation.”

Below are all who participated in today’s hearing:

  • Dixie James, President & COO, Einstein Healthcare Network
  • Gisele Fetterman, Second Lady of Pennsylvania
  • Secretary Russell Redding, PA Department of Agriculture
  • Scott Cawthern, Acting Deputy Secretary for the Office of Income Maintenance at the PA Dept. of Human Services
  • Dr. Kathy Reeves, MD. FAAP, Senior Associate Dean, Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Director, Center for Urban Bioethics – Professor, Pediatrics Lewis Katz School of Medicine, Temple University 
  • Andy Toy, Development and Communications Director, SEAMAAC
  • Tyler Ray, Neighborhood Community Organizer, Urban Creators
  • Maddy Booth, COO, Vetri Community Partnership
  • Mark Edwards, President & CEO, Food Trust
  • Loree Jones, CEO, Philabundance
  • Jay Worrall, President, Helping Harvest Food Bank

The full recording of this roundtable, as well as the written testimony from participants, can be found at senatormuth.com/policy. A full recording of this hearing can also be found on the PA Senate Democratic Facebook page.