Wednesday, May 30, 2012
This past November, Just Harvest observed a bittersweet milestone. We completed our 5,000th food stamp application since our contract with the Department of Public Welfare began in 2007, illustrating the continuing need as more and more county residents turn to public assistance in the throes of the stagnating economy.
Just Harvest’s contract with the Department of Public Welfare charges us to complete 500 applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known - but still referred to around our office - as food stamps) per year; for the past two years, we have completed over three times that amount. Over 165,000 people in Allegheny County participate in the food stamp program, and recent figures from the USDA place nationwide participation at nearly 46.5 million.
Co-Director Ken Regal told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “It’s a sad day when we ‘celebrate’ Just Harvest’s 5,000th food stamp application. This number sends a powerful message to those who are cutting budgets, stereotyping poor people, and putting new bureaucratic barriers in the way of people who are just trying to keep food on the table.”
So how did we (and how do we continue to) do it?
Just Harvest's food stamp specialists respond to 40-plus inquiries per week that we receive from people in need. Once a potential client contacts us, a specialist conducts a preliminary screening right over the phone to evaluate whether the household is likely to be eligible, and if so, calculates a rough estimate of the benefits they might receive. We ask questions about income, family size, and some key expenses like rent and utility payments to help us make an estimate.
The client may then apply over the phone with the help of the specialist, who submits the application via the Department of Public Welfare’s COMPASS website. Once the initial online application is submitted, our specialist creates an informational packet for the client, including documents that must be signed and returned to DPW, an explanation of how DPW works, and what the next steps are in the process – typically a phone interview with a caseworker.
In order to ensure that the process is moving along, we keep tabs on open cases through a series of follow-up calls with the client at 10-, 20- and 30-day intervals. The aim of the calls is to both troubleshoot along the way and to make sure that the client has submitted all their documents, has completed a DPW interview, and – after 30 days – to verify whether he or she has received a determination from DPW. In case of problems, we work with clients on a case-by-case basis to first help them to resolve the issue, stepping in with DPW staff when necessary.
Sometimes – through no fault of the client’s – it can be a challenge to get from start to finish, but our services have earned us solidly positive customer satisfaction reviews. “Most people are very pleased at how easy we make the process,” says former Food Stamp Specialist (now Volunteer Coordinator) Ann Sanders. “We know what questions to ask that are specific to the program, and can help them to get through an otherwise cumbersome and long application.”
* (This blog post was originally a newsletter article that went unused in our last issue - we've published it here since it's still interesting news!)
Friday, April 13, 2012
Just Harvest’s Child Nutrition Advocate Shauna Ponton has been with us for 11 years, during which she’s honed her commitment to empowering people to stand up to injustice. One way she does this is by educating low-income families on food programs available to them and their children. “I want to make a difference in someone’s life - every day,” she says. “That’s my personal ‘mission statement.'”
Shauna works daily to get the word out about various federally funded programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC - a program that provides supplemental food vouchers for new mothers and children ages birth to 5), after-school programs and summer food programs. Ensuring that eligible families and children in need have both the awareness of and access to these programs is one of her prime responsibilities.
Currently, she is organizing a statewide advocacy effort to implement a one-year recertification option for WIC. By requiring fewer visits to the WIC office, opting into the one-year recertification (as opposed to the current program that requires parents to visit the WIC office for recertification every 6 months) would make continued program participation less burdensome on working parents.
Child nutrition programs that are both functional and easily accessible go a long way toward helping low-income families to save money: Money that can be used for gas in the car, households expenses, or paying utility bills.
That’s why another big part of her job is to defend these programs against budget cuts. It is not too often that programs to feed children face huge cuts, but the threat is always looming (as it did last year, when Congress was mulling large reductions to WIC funding).
The stakes of childhood hunger are high – and the effects of poor nutrition are devastating to growing children. Poor concentration and hunger pangs interfere with learning both in the short and long term, and children of low-income families can also face obesity-related health issues that result from eating unhealthy foods (which unfortunately happen to be the cheapest, if not the only, available foods in some neighborhoods).
And what about maintaining school feeding programs when the schools themselves are perpetually facing budget cuts? Legislators need to open their eyes to the facts, she explained. “They have to understand what it takes to feed a kid a healthy meal in school. And what it takes to feed a kid breakfast and lunch in the summer months.” After that understanding is reached, legislators need to put the money where the programs are. And, it’s their duty to make sure those programs continue to work. She faces an additional challenge in sometimes having to educate legislators about the policies they implement. “Their view is far removed from real life,” she says. “They look at the dollars and cents, and end up being penny wise but pound foolish.”
To help combat these issues during the summer months, Shauna advocates for wider implementation of the Summer Food Service Program. This federally funded program serves breakfast, lunches and snacks to children in areas where 50 percent or more of the children receive free or reduced-price school meals.
With all the talk of nutrition standards in schools these days, it’s easy to mistakenly assume that Shauna personally educates families and children on how to eat healthy – but that isn’t the case. The programs are already designed to meet USDA guidelines for nutritional value. Shauna’s main focus is on getting the programs into the communities, and making sure that they remain robust enough to meet growing need.
If you’re interested in supporting the summer food program as a volunteer or as a site coordinator, contact Shauna at email@example.com. Please write “Summer Food Program” in subject line.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Public engagement and lots of action kept us busy over the summer of 2011 here at Just Harvest! Our June annual meeting at United Steelworkers World Headquarters Downtown featured state-of-the-organization addresses by Board President Barbara Finch and Co-Director Tara Marks. About 40 attended to enjoy the Pittsburgh premiere screening of Shira and Yoav Potash’s acclaimed documentary “Food Stamped” .
In August, we held our First Annual Summer Picnic at the West End Overlook. The weather cooperated throughout the afternoon, and early attendees got a view of Heinz Field where scenes from “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises” were being filmed. Friends, family, staff, board and members celebrated summer with a great potluck selection of food, music and games for the kids.
We took part in a number of public actions organized by our regional coalition partners as well. In June, as part of the One Pittsburgh coalition of labor, environmental and low-income advocacy organizations, we joined a 300-strong march from Market Square to the Exxon Station in Southside to protest tax breaks for the oil and gas industry while human services suffer under budget cuts. And in mid-August Just Harvest staff and board members again took to the streets with our partners in the We Are One coalition, gathering in a group of several hundred outside of Senator Pat Toomey’s office in the South side to demand that he do his job and work to create good jobs for needy households in our region.
At the behest of the nationally organized Half in Ten Campaign, Co-Director Tara Marks’ made a trip to the Whitehouse Rose Garden on September 12 to hear President Obama’s announcement of the American Jobs Act bill. For this, we drew a good bit of media attention. “This ‘get tough’ attitude is what we have been waiting for from the president,” she told Essential Public Radio, referring to Obama’s repeated call to Congress to “pass this bill!” And, as census data on poverty rates in our area were released later that month, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review profiled a pair of our food stamp clients who spoke firsthand about living through the effects of this tough economy. Client Steven Jones, who was interviewed in the first article, offered a kind endorsement: “My family and friends, that’s basically what got me by for the past year,” he said. “That and help from Just Harvest. If it wasn’t for that, things would be a lot worse.”
We reached out to the community through several public talks on Just Harvest and our economic justice work. Among other appearances, Ken Regal spoke to students at the Chatham University Food Studies program, and Communications Coordinator Adam MacGregor gave a talk to students at Academy Charter School about social safety net programs such as SNAP/Food Stamps and WIC. In October, Tara Marks co-presented a talk titled “Igniting the Political Will to End Hunger” with the Southwest Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership’s James Harrell at the Three Rivers Community Foundation’s Building Change: A Convergence for Social Justice event.
As the issues surrounding food and poverty programs will continue to develop rapidly over the coming election year, be sure to watch and listen for Just Harvest’s thoughts in print and on the air!
*(This article originally was to appear in Just Harvest News - we've republished it here because we still think it provides a nice recap of our 2011!)
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
We just got some fabulous news from the Allegheny County Health Department, which administers WIC.
Starting June 1, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum and children two, three and four years of age each will be issued checks worth $20 in free produce. Each family also will receive a re-usable Farmers Market shopping bag filled with recipe books for using fresh produce and other nutrition education materials.
The checks are redeemable through November 30 for Pennsylvania-grown fresh fruits and vegetables at participating Farmers Markets and Farm Stands in Pennsylvania. More than 50 in Allegheny County are listed on the Health Department’s WIC web site, www.achd.net/wic.
In addition to free produce, WIC families receive nutrition counseling, breastfeeding support, and other food benefits, such as infant formula; infant cereal; milk; eggs; cheese; juice; cereal; peanut butter; whole grains, including bread, tortillas, oatmeal and rice; soy milk; tofu; jarred baby foods; dry or canned beans; canned tuna/sardines/pink salmon; and fresh/frozen/canned fruits and vegetables.
WIC is a federally funded program for pregnant or breastfeeding women, postpartum mothers and children under the age of five. Eligibility is based on income and medical risk.
The current income limits are an annual gross income of $20,036 for a family of one; $26,955 for 2; $33,874 for 3; $40,793 for 4; $47,712 for 5; $54,631 for 6; $61,550 for 7; and $68,469 for 8. Add $6,919 for each additional member beyond 8. Unborn children are counted in determining family size when a woman is pregnant.
For information about WIC and how to apply for benefits, please call the County Health Department WIC Program at 412-350-5801. If this number is a toll call or you live outside Allegheny County, please call the statewide toll-free number, 1-800-WIC-WINS.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
We all know a picture is worth a thousand words – just maybe, a video can be worth millions of dollars.
There’s trouble brewing on both the state and federal budget and policy fronts as it relates to programs that help out the poor, hungry and needy in our communities. We’ve heard from many of you already who have shared with us your concerns, your personal experiences, and your frustrations with the repeated affronts our elected officials have launched against our public safety net. Whether it’s using funding earmarked for welfare programs as a slush fund to balance state or federal budgets, or proposing policy changes that would make it more difficult for low-income Pennsylvanians to apply for Food Stamps or other public assistance. Our lawmakers and the media - as well as our clients and the general public - need to hear from you.
Here’s how to help:
Record (using any kind of equipment – a digital camera or cellular phone will do) your own thoughts on the following issues:
Have you ever tried to call the DPW’s County Assistance Offices? How long does it take for you to get through to a caseworker on the phone? How long do you have to wait in line to be seen by a caseworker at the CAO? Have you ever missed an appointment because they failed to notify you?
These problems could get worse if the DPW funding is cut any further under the new state budget!
2) The WelFAIR reform bills currently under discussion by the state government. Congressional supporters of these bills cite the need to fight widespread ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ in the welfare system. But, these bills would create obstacles of time, bureaucracy, and legal hurdles that can interfere with the timely receipt of benefits that low-income Pennsylvanians are legally entitled to. Moreover, these bills would make it more difficult for low-income individuals to move from welfare to work by limiting what are called “Special Allowance” payments used to pay schooling or job training.
Other bills under discussion call for photo IDs to be printed on the ACCESS cards used to make purchases (and possibly, fingerprinting for cash assistance and food stamp applicants), and periodic drug testing for certain applicants who have been convicted of drug crimes – regardless of whether they are taking steps toward recovery.
Can you tell us how you or one of your loved ones has relied upon these programs currently or in the past?
Can you tell us a story about how difficult it was to apply for and eventually receive your benefits? And how additional requirements could create additional problems?
How would you feel about being forced to submit to photographing or fingerprinting before receiving benefits that you are legally eligible for?
3) The 2012 budget budget as proposed by the House Budget Committee. This budget slashes the SNAP/Food Stamp funding and creates radical reforms to its structure. So far, it calls for a $1.27 billion cut to SNAP/Food Stamps over 10 years, and conversion of the program into a block grant arrangement, where fixed sums would be given to states, meaning that food stamp allotments could literally run dry given heavy demand.
Can you tell us how much of a difference Food Stamps make to you and your family? How would a cut to the program affect you or your children?
We'd like to include all videos that we receive in a special playlist on our Youtube channel. This will make it easy for elected officials, media and other advocates to hear your stories, insights and opinions on these vital issues. Please also include your own contact information with your video so that Just Harvest can get in touch!
Send your videos to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, January 28, 2011
The EITC is a refundable federal income tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and families. Congress originally approved the tax credit legislation in 1975 in part to offset the burden of social security taxes and to provide an incentive to work. During this tax year, qualifying families can receive up to $5,666.00 in EITC.
Councilman Kraus stressed the importance of the EITC in boosting the incomes of lower-income workers, especially in light of the continuing effects of the recent recession.
Representatives from Just Harvest and the United Way of Allegheny County were onhand to receive the proclamation. Just Harvest is one of several organizations in the United Way of Allegheny County’s ‘Money in Your Pocket Coalition,’ which offers annual, free tax assistance through six IRS-certified Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites in Allegheny County.
Adam MacGregor, Just Harvest Communications Coordinator, noted the need for wider awareness of EITC. He said that though EITC can account for as much as 45 percent of a family’s annual income, only between 15 and 20 percent of eligible individuals claim the credit.
“To put this in perspective: EITC can boost an $8.00 per hour job to a $10.00 per hour job, which can make all the difference to a low-income taxpayer,” he said.
Suelynn Shiller of the United Way of Allegheny County said that for tax year 2009, the Money In Your Pocket Coalition processed 4,486 tax returns for low-income clients, reclaiming $3.1 million in EITC. Percina Grier, a tax client of the MIYPC in 2009, called the EITC that she received with the help of the free tax service a “great help and a blessing.”
Taxpayers can get free help in determining their EITC eligibility and claiming the credit by contacting the Money In Your Pocket Coalition at the United Way of Allegheny County’s helpline: 412-255-1155. The Coalition’s free tax assistance services are now available for individuals who made up to $20,000 and families who earned up to $40,000 in 2010. Visit www.pghfreetaxes.org for details.