Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Letter to the Editor

Just Harvest Co-Director, Joni Rabinowitz submitted this letter to the editor which appeared on Friday, December 18, 2009 in the editorial section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Strengthen 'safety net'

More than 561,000 Pennsylvanians are unemployed and more than 400,000 children live below the poverty line. The recession affects everybody.

And our current policies to address poverty don't keep up with our changing economy. On this much, we agree with Glen Meakem. But Meakem is wrong to propose eliminating the "safety net" in his column "The dependent class" (Dec. 6 and Actually, spending on "safety net" programs is insufficient to deal with the unprecedented economic crisis. In Pennsylvania, for example, the number of people receiving cash assistance is near a 40-year low -- only 85,000 families, down from 170,000 in 1997.

Pennsylvania spends $164 million less per year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash grants than it did in 1997. Grant amounts haven't increased in 20 years and pay only $403 per month for a family of three! Meakem says the nation "spent $714 billion on various means-tested welfare programs" in 2008. But more than half of that was for health programs like Medicaid.

We invite Meakem to join the fight for health care reform for all Americans, to increase coverage that will lead to cheaper preventive care and reduce wasteful spending. The rest of Meakem's deceptive accounting includes Pell Grants for college students, LIHEAP to help pay for heat, job training and Head Start.

"Safety net" programs should be modernized and expanded, not eliminated.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WIC and Farmers' Markets: A New Opportunity

On October 1, 2009 the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Program (WIC) extensively expanded their food package to include many more healthy options for mothers and children. The new package emphasizes healthy choices like whole grains, low-sugar juices, and for the first time, the addition of fruit and vegetables. WIC participants can purchase fruit and vegetables using the new “cash value voucher,” or CVV. These CVVs will be distributed in amounts of $6.00 for children, $8.00 for mothers and $10.00 for breastfeeding mothers. Another lesser known new addition to the WIC package is each state’s ability to authorize farmers’ markets to accept the new CVVs. This change in the states’ legal authority has exciting potential. The ability to use WIC at farmers’ markets could boost both WIC recipients’ nutritional health and provide more business to local farmers and agriculture.

Much confusion surrounds this new addition, because a program that allows WIC recipients to shop at farmers’ markets already exists: the Farmers’ Markets Nutrition Program, or FMNP. WIC recipients (and also seniors, through local Area Agencies on Aging) can receive checks to use at farmers’ markets at their WIC agency. But the numbers of FMNP usage are disappointing. In the fiscal year 2008, 8.7 million Americans received WIC benefits, but only 2.3 million WIC recipients received FMNP benefits (USDA, 2009). Actual redemption rates are even lower. Federal allocation rates also illustrate the importance of WIC in the farmers’ markets: an estimated $500 million is allocated for WIC, twenty-five times more than FMNP. If only 4% of all fruits and vegetables purchased with the CVVs were purchased at farmers’ markets, it would still match the entirety of the FMNP utilization from WIC participation (Community Food Security Coalition, 2009).

The benefits of adopting the CVVs in farmers’ markets seem obvious, and many states including New Jersey, New York, and California have implemented pilot CVV programs in farmers’ markets. However, Pennsylvania is currently not planning on implementing any pilot programs. According to a 2009 report by the Community Food Security Coalition, the reasons for Pennsylvania’s hesitation lie in structural and funding issues. But many states had similar issues, including California, who shares a unique check-cashing method with Pennsylvania. This issue will continue to be relevant, especially with the continually-rising numbers of people who depend on WIC and other food programs to feed their families. Pennsylvania leaders should be open to discussions about this wonderful opportunity for both Pennsylvania mothers and local farmers.

Anne Wachtel is a social work intern at Just Harvest.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Busting Food Stamp Myths

It's not surprising that during an economic downturn, more people turn out to recieve food stamps. The USDA just released its estimates about food stamp participation rates, based on 2007 data. According to this report, an estimated 1.4 million Pennsylvanians are eligible for food stamps, of which about 76% are currently enrolled in the program. The New York Times and The Post-Gazette ran the same article referring to a USDA report on food stamp usage and the diminishing stigma associated with using applying for food assistance. Despite the growing need and usage, this article demonstrates the pervasive myths about food stamps that even those who have applied for and receive benefits believe. This post is aimed at three of myths mentioned in this article:

1. People avoid marraige to get food assistance.

It doesn't matter if you are married or not to your significant other - or your roommate. If you share food, you are expected to apply together and report both incomes. That's the law, people!

2. Food Stamps discourage work and hurt the economy.

Before each food stamp application, we do a quick screening just to make sure people are most likely eligible before we start the application. I've definitely had this conversation several times with individuals who are barely over income and wonder, "Would it pay off for me to make less and become eligible for food stamps?" Would you drop your gross pay by $60 to get $37 in food stamps? No. How about take of $200 in pay to get $77 in food stamps? Honestly, the situations where it might pay off are when people are literally just over the guideline and have high shelter costs.

If you are a student, unless you meet certain exceptions, you have to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible, no matter how hungry and broke you are.

Furthermore, food stamps don't hurt the economy! Actually, for every dollar dolled out in benefits, a multiplier effect occurs.

3. Food stamps are basically cash assistance, but with fewer restrictions.

Food Stamps can only be used to purchase food - unless you are doing something illegal. And there are restrictions on it: in Pennsylania some food stamp applicants are asked to participate in work-readiness programs. It has only been since the fall of 2008 that non-disabled adults without children can receive food stamps for longer than 90 days.

A lot of people applying for food stamps for the first time, especially seniors, are often shocked and sometimes insulted by how low the income guidelines are, how low their benefit amount can be, or how much paperwork is asked for. This is after all, a system that is supposed to be there to help people, right? This is a safety net for people at vulnerable times in their lives who are stepping out and saying: "I need help meeting my basic needs and the needs of my family, I can't do it on my own." The last thing anyone in need should have to deal with is accusations or opinions about their moral standing in society.

Being poor is not a crime! A lot of this conservative rhetoric encourages people to feed their families cheap, malnutritious food instead of applying for assistance, which results in all sorts of health-related and social ills.

Ann Sanders assists people in the application process for food stamps in Just Harvest's Food Stamp's Make a Difference Program.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A letter to the editor

Anne Wachtel, our social work intern at Just Harvest, submitted this letter to the editor which appeared on Friday, November 20th, 2009 in the editorial section of the Post-Gazette.

A mayor for them

Under Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Pittsburgh has gained much media attention as "America's most livable city." He also claims to have made great strides in Pittsburgh's economic growth. If we listened only to him, Pittsburgh might seem to be a paradise. But this is not the case. Regardless of these so-called strides, we have thousands of residents in dire poverty. Even basic human necessities such as food are not a sure thing in "America's most livable city."

As a social work intern at Just Harvest, a South Side-based nonprofit that helps people apply for food stamps, I have seen this firsthand. Our applications for food stamps have more than doubled in the past year. According to the Department of Public Welfare, in September, Allegheny County food stamp participation went up for the 26th consecutive month. In Allegheny County alone, more than 134,000 people rely on food stamps to fill their pantries and refrigerators.

I challenge you, Mr. Ravenstahl, to serve your first full term as mayor for these people. Serve for the residents who cannot afford to pay for food and housing in the country's "most livable city." Serve for the elderly, the single mothers, the working families who must decide between food and rent. Serve for the homeless who can afford neither. You have claimed your dedication to Pittsburgh. Now, prove your dedication to Pittsburgh's most important resource: its residents.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Guest Blog: "Robbing Peter?" by Ray Murphy

How Pennsylvania's largest city spends its extra CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money sets a bad example for how Pittsburgh City Council spends ours. Click here to check out former Just Harvest intern Ray Murphy's blog post, "Robbing Peter?", which discusses the controversial decision in Philadelphia to spend federal anti-poverty money on non-direct assistance to people struggling in the economy.

And visit our website at for more information about joining Just Harvest at the Pittsburgh City Council Budget Hearing on November 30th, to ask City Council for funding from the CDBG to expand the Pittsburgh Hunger Fund in the 2010 City Budget, and prioritize safety net initiatives.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Take Action!

Last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced legislation that would improve young children’s access to nutritious meals in child care centers, family child care homes, and Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Many children are spending more hours in care as their parents need to work more and more hours to make ends meet. This bill will help to ensure that they will get nutritious food while away from home. Ask Senators Specter and Casey to co-sponsor the Access to Nutritious Meals for Young Children Act of 2009 (S. 2749) today! Congress will be working on these and other Childhood Nutrition bills over the next six months.

Click here for more details and a link to send an email to your Senators from the National Women’s Law Center.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Crossing the Poverty Line: A Poverty Simulation

Everyone who participated or volunteered in Just Harvest’s Crossing the Poverty Line: A Poverty Simulation helped to facilitate a successful and eye-opening event. My worldview has been sensitized and my preconceived notions surrounding my impoverished neighbors amended. Here is my story…

After being assigned my role at Just Harvest’s Poverty Simulation, I quickly learned that my mother abandoned me and my three younger sisters long ago. We haven’t seen her in years; my young siblings can hardly remember her face. With our father now incarcerated, we are left to fend for ourselves. At only twenty-one years old, I now need to budget my time between academic commitments at community college and responsibilities to family at home. We, the Perez family, are in crisis.

The only thing more troubling than our current situation, was the knowledge that all across our community there are similar instances of family fragmentation and deterioration. Our neighbors are no better off than us. Many are alone, homeless, and without assets. Still others have bills and expenses far exceeding available income. Barriers to our individual and mutual success abound.

Still we take to the streets of our community with optimism, our motivation to improve our various situations unabridged…

…then the simulation really began. It didn’t take long for my family to realize that we were entrapped within a system of oppression. Unable to remove ourselves from a cyclical progression of poverty and mistreatment, no one can manipulate the system in any truly positive way. After only the first simulated week, we have already given up any hope of keeping my three year old sister in the home. She was taken by child protective services and is now wrapped within an unending web of foster care. I wonder if I will ever see her again. We don’t have food on our table and our utilities are going unpaid. I haven’t returned to class at community college.

Hopelessness gripes every family in the community. Electricity is turned off by the utility company, and soon families are tossed into the cold with unsympathetic eviction notices. We try to access social services and community action agencies but cannot access them due to lack of transportation. When we do arrive, the lines are out the door. Theft becomes commonplace as neighbors turn against each other. The community is not a community at all; instead a trap – keeping us poor and discouraged.

Soon we are left with no home and little money. Resigned to defeat, we don’t make it. We are lost. Without a voice and with no means to improve our situation, we are doomed to a life of cyclical poverty. For the Perez family, the simulation becomes all too real.

Disadvantaged and impoverished individuals and families need a voice. All of us who participated in Just Harvest’s Crossing the Poverty Line: A Poverty Simulation realize this now more than ever. Without individuals and organizations advocating on the behalf of low-income people their plight is sure to go unnoticed and therefore unaddressed. And so it is all of our responsibilities. It is our responsibility to go out into the community and make a difference for our neighbors and community members, for our friends and family members, for everyone who should be equally represented in our society.

-Noah Whelan, AmeriCorps*VISTA

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pennsylvania STILL doesn’t have a state budget!

As a result, the social safety net is on the verge of collapse. Nonprofits all over the state, such as those responsible for daycare for low-income children, mental health counseling, foster care, homeless shelters, group homes, elderly care, and food pantries are shutting down. They can no longer wait for their state payments. Many are relying on lines of credit or tapping home equity credit lines, and retirement and personal savings accounts to pay employees, utilities and mortgages.

In Allegheny County, over 3000 child care workers have lost their jobs and 12,175 children are without care! Parents without a safe place to send their children may lose their jobs in an already bad economy. Students have not received their PHEAA grants or award amount.

Pennsylvania is the last state without a budget and our legislators are not even meeting to build a compromise! The budget is now over 10 weeks late.

Call your PA legislators and ask them to preserve the safety net and pass a fair state budget NOW! We need a responsible budget that raises revenue to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our community. Tell them how the budget impasse has affected you and your family and what programs you think are important to keep funded.

Find your legislators at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Join us

August 19, 2009 - 12:00pm

Just Harvest is organizing a demonstration outside the headquarters of PPG Industries in Pittsburgh to voice their outrage that some lawmakers are proposing to cut corporate taxes for a select group of large multi-state companies.

The proposal, which is under consideration by state budget negotiators, would cost $100 million in lost revenue at a time when the state is already facing a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall.

PPG, a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing giant with facilities and affiliates in more than 60 countries around the world, is one of the businesses strongly lobbying Harrisburg for the tax break.


WHAT: Demonstration protesting special interest tax breaks being considered by budget negotiators

WHEN: Noon on Wednesday, August 19, 2009

WHERE: Outside PPG Headquarters, 4th and Market Streets, Pittsburgh

for more details.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

1 in 6 low-income children missing out on free summer meals

How is it that food stamp numbers continue to rise, yet only one in six low-income children participates in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to receive free meals throughout the summer?

According to a recent FRAC report, it is harder to reach our children in the summer months, and Congressional measures over the years have resulted in reducing the number of communities eligible to participate, eliminating start-up and expansion funding, and lowering reimbursement rates. These critical cuts decreased both the number of sponsors and Summer Food sites.

In 2008, only 10 states reached at least one quarter of their low-income children through the SFSP. And although PA has the 13th highest participation in the program in 2008, we still only served 24.8 children through Summer Food out of every 100 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during the school year.

“Not only are states with low Summer Nutrition participation rates failing to provide for their low-income children, they are missing out on the millions of dollars in federal funds that exist to provide healthy foods for these children.” (page 2) Pennsylvania could receive over $4.9 million if they serve 40 children in Summer Food to every 100 children enrolled in the NSLP.

Advocates must reach out to communities with low participation rates, and Congress must pass child nutrition reauthorization bills to make the SFSP more effective and restore the cuts previously made —now, when the need and numbers are at an all time high, we must get all children fed in the summer.

To read the full report, click Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation.

To view a map of Summer Food sites throughout Allegheny County, click here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pennsylvania increases SNAP guidelines

Starting July 27th, 2009, the gross income guidelines for the SNAP program (formerly the Food Stamp Program) increase to 160% of the federal poverty level. If you've applied for food stamps recently and have been denied because you were just over the income limit, you may be eligible now.

(as of July 27, 2009)

_Household Size______Monthly gross income limit
_______________________(before taxes)________
______2______________________ $1,867 ___________
______3______________________ $2,347 ___________ ______4______________________ $2,827___________
______5______________________ $3,307___________

* These guidelines DO NOT APPLY to households with members who are disabled or over 60 years old

Call Just Harvest at 412 . 431 . 8963 to apply over the phone from 10am - 6pm Monday - Friday.

Local advocates join to urge state legislators to vote against slashing our programs in the State Budget

A group of seven Just Harvest staff and interns joined PCRG, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, Neighborhood Legal Services and The Housing Alliance on July 16th on a trip to Harrisburg and spoke out to our state legislators to oppose the proposed state budget cuts presented in SB 850 and HB 1416. So far, we haven’t seen a budget proposal we’re happy with—one that includes workable plans of raising revenue over slashing funds to our most important human service programs including: childcare, legal aid, libraries, the Department of Public Welfare and economic development.

Along with protesting these proposed cuts with our legislators and their aides, the group provided ideas for raising revenue, primarily endorsing the option of a temporary increase in the PIT (personal income tax). Although receptive in our dialogue, many legislators hesitated on acting on such a controversial issue—the demon of raising taxes. Reelection and party affiliation should be set aside in this matter; we elect our representatives to make these hard decisions, not to abandon leadership at a time when we need them the most.

Please join us in this fight—tell your elected officials you’re willing to pay (.68 cents a day) for the PIT increase. Otherwise, without a statewide PIT increase, we will be looking at increased local and property taxes in our near future.

TAKE ACTION: Call your state officials today and tell them we can’t balance the budget on cuts alone; we can’t balance the budget on the backs of poor people. To find your state legislators, visit: and type in your zip code.

For more information on how these cuts will affect us, check out the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center's "30 Ways in 30 Days Service Cuts will hurt Pennsylvania" and browse the PBPC website for more interesting articles. For in depth analyses, visit the Keystone Research Center.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Social safety net fails to support full-time minimum wage workers

Imagine working 40 hours a week every week and bringing home less than $1,000 a month. Then imagine trying to live off of that for all of your utilities, rent, food, gas, car payment, etc. You would assume anyone working full-time wouldn’t find themselves in this situation, but that’s the lot for low-income workers.

I discovered this when interviewing a young man for his food stamp application. I asked him how many hours a week he works and how much he makes an hour. Then I get out the calculator and do the math. 40 hours a week x $7.25 an hour x 4 weeks a month = $1,160 a month. Subtract taxes, and he was right: his take home pay for full-time work was less than a grand a month.

This is where the safety net system comes along and fails to support low-income workers, because the income guidelines for food stamps don’t account for taxes for the first income test: the gross income test. For a single person feeding themselves, their gross income has to be less than $1,126/month. Our full-time worker living on less than a thou a month grosses $1,160. No food stamps for this fellow.

Which, well, is not fair. For starters, had taxes been taken into account, he would have been eligible. And eligible for quite a bit due to his rent and utility costs. An extra $95 a month to pay for food would have really been a hand up in his situation.

Secondly, had he received $1,000 in any other source of income every month instead of working for it and paying taxes, he would have been eligible for assistance. But since taxes aren’t subtracted when considering eligibility, the system is letting this young man still go hungry.

So, for any of you contacting legislators next time the Farm Bill is up: tell them to change the rules so that the gross income guidelines are gross income minus taxes.

-Ann Sanders, Food Stamp Specialist

Monday, July 6, 2009

SNAP clients MUST receive EBT cards in a timely manner

When considering the complexity of the application process for SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamp benefits), it is not surprising that there are numerous places along the road where the process can veer off course, delaying a client's ability to use their benefits to buy food.

It is all the more frustrating when that process veers off course after a client is under the impression that they have already crossed the finish line. Just Harvest recently encountered several situations in which a client was able to successfully navigate the treacherous obstacles of accurately filling out an application--gathering the mountain of supporting documents for verification of their situation and sending it off to a County Assistance Office, completing an interview with a caseworker and being approved for benefits--with nothing to show for it. The final, crucial step that allows a person to finally use their benefits, receiving an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, never happened.

How can it be, that after what can at times, be a month long process of phone calls, left messages, faxes, mailings, and more phone calls, a client can be approved and not receive a card? Where does the car veer off the road? When a new client is approved for benefits, they have the option of having their EBT card mailed to them. For clients who are working full-time, caring for young ones, or are otherwise unable to make it into the County Assistance Office, this would seem to be a convenient option.

When a new client is approved for SNAP benefits, a notice is automatically sent from Harrisburg, informing them of their status and the amount of benefits to be expected. If they cannot pick up the EBT card at the office, it is sent from JP Morgan, who has a contract with the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to create the cards and manage the EBT system. Once a card is issued, it should arrive in 3-7 days. However, unlike the notice of eligibility from Harrisburg, the card is not automatically issued. It requires an additional step from a caseworker to issue the card. If that step never happens, a client does not receive a card, and is unable to use his or her benefits.

This situation raises several questions. Why isn’t the card automatically issued, like the eligibility notice? How often do caseworkers forget to issue a card? What is the average amount of time it takes a client to receive a card after they have been approved? For a process that can already take 30 days just to determine eligibility, having to wait an additional few days or weeks, could be extremely difficult for someone who needs food right away.

Just Harvest recently encountered a case in which a client was approved, but never received a notice or EBT card. After receiving a Just Harvest newsletter months after applying for benefits, he called to say he had never heard anything. When our advocate inquired about the case, the gentleman had been receiving benefits for over five months and had no idea. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, yet it illustrates another barrier to receiving food stamp benefits, which have the potential to discourage even the most persistent applicant. DPW needs to ensure that all applicants who are determined eligible receive an EBT card in a consistent and timely manner, so that clients are never forced to hunt down a card that they have already invested so much time and energy into obtaining.

-Brian Gilmore, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The return of grassroots recipes: Great Depression Cooking - Clara's Pasta with Peas

We've been on a hiatus with our Grassroots Recipes, but this video seems to be the perfect way to bring back the recipe sharing. The first video of this series originated in 2007, and its popularity recently resurfaced as people all over relate to the struggle of putting food on the table and eating on a tight budget. Clara Cannucciari candidly shares her memory-filled commentary of what it's like growing up in an era of economic hardship while intertwining her simple recipes for cooking for next to nothing. If you have any thrifty recipes to share, please feel free to e-mail us at

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Many thanks

Many thanks to Bruce Springsteen, who generously supported Just Harvest for yet another year on his tour through Pittsburgh. Not only did he donate two tickets to auction off to his sold out show, he also matched the highest bidder with a personal contribution.

We were able to raise over $5,000 in cash the night of the event, thanks to "The Boss" announcing how important it is to support local grassroots organizations like Just Harvest and to join our efforts to fight hunger and poverty by donating. Giving fans flooded the doors after the show, throwing cash into our donation buckets. We couldn't have asked for a better encore.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Food Stamp participation continues to rise

The April data from the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) just arrived, and food stamp participation in Allegheny County rose for the 17th consecutive month. It is now at 125,834 (up 9.1% from a year ago.) Statewide, participation set yet another all-time record, at 1,339,541 (which is 12.4% higher than a year ago.)

Even more dramatic is the impact of the April 1 stimulus increase in benefit levels.Statewide total benefits in April went up more than $28,000,000 thanks mostly to the benefits increase (and slightly to the increasing number of recipients.) Allegheny County recipients shared more than $16,000,000 in food stamps in April, up $2.7 million from March 2009.

Since July 2008, Just Harvest processed over 500 Food Stamp applications--up 52% so far from the year before. And, we just renewed our contract with DPW to provide application assistance over the phone for yet another year. As the need for assistance reaches all time highs, we're working hard to help people gain access to the benefits they are entitled to.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just Harvest's 2009 Annual Meeting and Board Election

On Tuesday night, many of Just Harvest’s staff, board, volunteers, and supporters came together to celebrate the successes of 2008 and look forward to the year ahead. Reports were given on the highlights of the past year, organizational finances, up coming advocacy efforts, and the challenges and opportunities Just Harvest will face in 2009. For a summary of the information discussed check out this year’s Annual Report, available on our website. One of the meeting’s highlights was the election of new board members. Please check out the new board and their biographies at our website. We look forward to the energy and passion this board brings to its work.

This year’s annual meeting featured a talk by Joyce Rothermel, the long-time CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Joyce, who is also a Just Harvest member, discussed the hunger situation in Western Pennsylvania and the role of non-profits in responding to the community’s growing needs. She affirmed the long-standing partnership between Just Harvest and the Food Bank, and challenged both organizations to work together to end hunger. Just Harvest’s public policy-centered work compliments, builds upon, and supports the direct food relief provided by the Food Bank and its member agencies. As the economic recession continues, all poverty and hunger focused non-profits will have to stretch their resources to meet the unprecedented challenges and opportunities they face in their work. To learn more about the Food Bank and its important work visit their website.

Another exciting part of the evening’s events was the announcement of the new volunteer-directed Grassroots Program Committee. This still-forming committee, which will be made up of volunteers and board members, will be an informal mechanism for interested people to organize events and activities that promote Just Harvest’s mission. Whether you want to organize a bowling party or happy hour, host a film showing or a book discussion, the Grassroots Program Committee is the place to get involved! The first meeting will be at 6pm on Tuesday, May 26 at the Just Harvest office. Pizza will be provided for this brainstorming session, and all are invited to attend. Please contact Brian Gilmore by email or phone (412-431-8960) if you are interested in participating.

2008 was a great year for Just Harvest, and it would not have been possible with out you, our supporters, volunteers, members, staff, and board. Thank you for joining us in this important work. With your support, Just Harvest continues the fight against hunger and poverty, sowing the seeds of economic justice here in Allegheny County and beyond!
-Paul Shetler Fast, Just Harvest Intern

Friday, April 17, 2009

Just Harvest explores Google Maps

They saw a need and created a tool to fix it. That is the basic description of how the Volunteer Pittsburgh Map was created by Just Harvest intern Lou Hanson and Americorps VISTA Brian Gilmore.

The function of the EARN program is to help Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) clients find placements where they can meet their work requirements for the program. When clients don’t meet the requirement, it hurts their assistance as well as the funding for the TANF program—even if clients are only short by an hour or two a week. After Just Harvest advocate Rochelle Jackson shared her concern about the program underutilizing volunteer opportunities that would help to fill those extra few hours, Lou and Brian got to work.

They decided a map would be the best tool for linking TANF clients with possible volunteer opportunities close to where they live and work. People also tend to be more willing to donate their time if it is supporting organizations in their community. After a few intensive weeks of internet searches, phone calls, and typing up information, the Volunteer Pittsburgh map was born.

The Google map tool is particularly helpful because it is interactive. Users can zoom in on their neighborhood, click on a colored placemark to get the site information, and even get a real image of the place by using the street view option. Sites are also color-coded so that users can search for sites that offer opportunities in their field of interest, such as medicine, education and environment.

This tool was so easy to use and so well-received by representatives of the EARN Centers that we decided to make another map to show Summer Food sites. Just like the Volunteer Pittsburgh map, users can zoom in on their neighborhood and find out where the closest summer food sites are where children and youth can receive breakfast, lunch, and snacks for free during the summer. Just click on a placemark to get the details of which meals are offered there and at what times.

We hope that these maps are helpful for you. Happy mapping!
- Lou Hanson, Just Harvest Intern

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More bad (and some good) news for struggling homeowners:

In times of crisis, it is inspiring to see individuals and organizations of all types reaching out to help those in need. Unfortunately, it is equally troubling to be reminded of the lengths some people will go to try to take advantage of those who are looking for help. I’m referring to specifically to mortgage modification scammers, who are in the business of duping struggling homeowners with fraudulent promises of financial assistance with refinancing mortgages.

The scammers prey on homeowners who are in danger of defaulting, by using official-sounding names to make folks think they are taking advantage of President Obama’s promise to refinance or modify 7 to 9 million mortgages. Companies advertising these services are often fraudulent, going so far as to try to mimic the actual mortgage lender in mailings they send to homeowners who are at risk of defaulting. Anyone using their services is at risk of losing their savings or their homes.

The good news is that the government seems committed to cracking down on these scammers. They have sent warning letters to 71 companies who were running suspicious advertisements, and are currently investigating 2100 mortgage fraud cases. "We will shut down fraudulent companies more quickly than before. We will target companies that otherwise would have gone unnoticed under the radar," says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner. Here’s hoping the government’s active stance against these scammers shuts down or discourages fraudulent companies. Until then, let’s extend our own helping hand by warning friends, families, and neighbors about the risk, and make sure no one we know is taken advantage of by these ruthless frauds.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Unemployment and the Stimulus Plan

A recent article on National Public Radio (NPR) notes that the unemployment rate has reached 8.5%, the highest it has been since 1983. In the month of January, 741,000 people lost their jobs, the largest number of layoffs in a single month since October of 1949. With numbers like these, it can cause a bit of head-scratching to hear that governors in some states are refusing stimulus money included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which provides substantial financial incentives to states that reform their unemployment benefits programs.

What specific reforms are required for a state to receive funding? In order to receive one-third of the funding, states must implement an “alternative base period” policy, which would take into account more recent wages in determining eligibility. Many states currently don’t count the most recent three months of earnings in determining if a worker is eligible. According to a briefing from the National Employment Law Project, over 40% of workers who fail to qualify for benefits because of insufficient wages would qualify under the “alternative base period” policy. There seems to be little objection to implementing this policy.

However, in order to qualify for the additional two-thirds of funding, states are required to implement policies that have proven more controversial in the eyes of some governors.
States would have to extend benefits to two of four potential groups in order to qualify: 1) part-time workers; 2) workers who leave work for compelling family reasons, such as illness or disability of a family member, domestic violence, or moving to accompany a spouse after a job change; 3) workers who have exhausted their benefits as a result of long-term unemployment, and who are enrolled in an approved job training program; 4) workers with dependents, who are receiving benefits, but whose benefits would be increased to help them care for their families.

The governors who are rejecting the additional two-thirds of funding seem to be doing so primarily because they believe expanding unemployment insurance will create a future tax burden on businesses when the federal funding runs out. The National Employment Law Project has responded with a press release entitled “Get The Facts Straight Governors”. In it, the NELP makes several points important points regarding the governors’ refusal of funding.

First, there is no requirement in the bill that the States make the expansions permanent. If they find the changes to be too costly in the future, they can repeal the expansions. Second, some states are at risk of dropping below the minimum level of the funds required in their unemployment trust funds. If this happens, those states will be forced to raise taxes on businesses to return the fund to the minimum required level. Therefore, considering the rising numbers of unemployment insurance claims, refusing to accept stimulus money may mean higher taxes. Also, the federal funding would cover the cost of the expansion for several years (up to 66 for some states). That would give states a buffer period to both evaluate the expansion and work to find reforms that would not require increased business taxes.

The expansion of unemployment insurance is intended to help a greater number of people through this economic crisis, during a time of high job loss and weak job market. Governors who choose to protect businesses from potential, future tax increases, instead of expanding unemployment benefits to those who are in need right now seem to missing the point regarding who truly needs protection now.
- Brian Gilmore, AmeriCorps VISTA

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Over $2.5 million with two weeks to go!

With only two weeks left in our “Give Paychecks a Boost” campaign, Just Harvest tax preparers have completed over 1200 Federal tax returns free of charge, with clients receiving over $2.5 million dollars in refunds! The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is responsible for over half of the refund amount, “making work pay” for hundreds of Just Harvest’s tax clients.

These impressive numbers would not be possible with the hard work and dedication of our tax preparers and volunteers, who have logged over 1800 paid and 650 volunteer hours of service. Thanks to everyone who has supported us and made this campaign a resounding success, and a tremendous economic benefit to both low- and middle-income workers and to the Greater Pittsburgh region as a whole. And for those last minute filers, we still have some appointments available. Call 412-431-8964 for more information, or to set up an appointment.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

State service providers down to bare bones

Who is going to deliver all the important services, when there are no more workers left?

We’re glad Gov. Rendell has additional funds to help vulnerable Pennsylvanians who are losing their jobs, but he MUST provide enough staff to deliver these critical services.

The number of people receiving food stamp benefits is the highest in decades. And our governor is providing more funds for the needy adults who need basic medical care.

But nobody’s asking: "How will these services get to the people who need them?" Rendell has frozen hiring.

In Pennsylvania the staff numbers in the Dept. of Public Welfare-- which administers Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance to the most needy of our neighbors—is way down.

The staff complement for these workers in Allegheny County alone, is about 400 employees.

They are down to 320 workers now, and people are retiring every day. By June, they expect 120 more to retire! The state has a hiring freeze, and people who need the help are not receiving it in a timely manner.

So ask Gov. Rendell, "Who will deliver these services when there is no more staff in the government?"

- Joni Rabinowitz, Co-Director

Taxes and Obama’s stimulus plan

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is President Obama’s extensive vision for how the government will invest in America’s future. From health care to green technology to state budgets, the legislation represents a broad effort to return the country to a position of economic stability and prosperity. Included in these efforts are several tax provisions which could impact low- to moderate-income workers. The following is a summary of the major changes and how they might affect you.

Making Work Pay Tax Credit
This credit represents President Obama’s promise to lower taxes for 95 percent of American workers. The credit is equal to 6.2 percent of your earned income up to $6,450, for a maximum credit of $400 ($800 if filling jointly). Earners who make up $95,000 ($190,000 if filling jointly) are eligible for the credit. Taxpayers will receive the credit through a reduction in the amount income taxes withheld from their paychecks, beginning April 1st. The credit is in effect for the 2009 and 2010 tax years. Workers with more than one job may want to ask one of their employers to not reduce their withholding to ensure they will not owe taxes when they file in 2010.

Earned Income Tax Credit
The ARRA expands the Earned Income Tax Credit for larger families with three or more children and for married couples. The credit percentage increases from 40 to 45 percent for large families, meaning a maximum benefit of $5,657 in 2009. The act also widens the income range for a married couple to receive the credit. The credit applies to 2009 and 2010 tax years.

Child Tax Credit
The ARRA lowers the refundability threshold for the Child Tax Credit from $8,500 to $3,000 for 2009 and 2010. This means that more families will be eligible for the tax credit in 2009, and many who were eligible before will get a larger credit.

American Opportunity Tax Credit
This credit expands the Hope Education Credit for low- and moderate-income workers. It increases the maximum credit amount from $1,800 to $2,500. It expands the credit to apply to the first four years of post-secondary education (currently, the credit can only be used for the first two years). It expands the definition of what counts as an expenses to include the cost of any course materials. Finally, up to 40% of the credit is refundable. This means that a taxpayer who qualifies for the $2,500 and doesn’t owe any taxes can still claim a refund credit of $1,000.

Social Security Benefits
Although not technically tax related, there will be a one-time $250 dollar recovery payment for most individuals who receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Railroad Retirement and Veterans benefits. You will receive it separately from your benefits by the end of May 2009. It will be delivered in the same way as your current benefits are received. For additional questions, check out

This is a brief summary of the major changes to taxes that will affect low- and middle-income earners. To learn more, check out the Center for Economic Progress’ blog at and check out for news, updates, or to get your voice heard about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Local evening food distribution

Starting this Thursday evening, March 26th, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB) is hosting an evening food distribution at it's warehouse on One North Linden Street in Duquesne from 5:30-7:30pm targeting unemployed and underemployed families.

There is no need to pre-register, but bring containers or bags to bring your groceries home with you. To read a recent article from the Post-Gazette with more details about evening food distribution at the GPCFB, click here.

. . .

With food banks facing increasing high demand because of the state of our economy, we feel fortunate that this sort of distribution is able to happen in our area at a time when people need it the most. But charitable contributions can only go so far, and our food banks are still in danger with the continual rising of food costs.

To read about more about the future of our food banks, with in depth commentary from food bank representatives from all over the country such as Iris Valanti from the GPCFB, check out "America's food banks need a bailout: The struggle to feed America's nouveau needy." on And feel free to leave comments...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tax site opens January 20th

As tax season approaches, Just Harvest is once again opening our doors with our FREE tax preparation site on the Southside. To be eligible, a single person must earn less than $20,000, and families must earn less than $40,000. We will e-file your tax return so you can get your refund in as little as nine days. You must have an appointment--no walk ins will be accepted. To schedule an appointment, call: (412)431-8964 after you have received all of your W-2s.