Thursday, December 9, 2010

Natalia Rudiak: Half Way Through the SNAP Challenge

Here we are, half-way through the SNAP challenge, and I can tell you that it is living up to its name. But, I do have to admit that I cheated a little bit yesterday. On Tuesday I had a lunch meeting that I was committed to, and though I ordered the cheapest item on the menu—a cup of soup that came with bread, and a glass of ice water—it put me just over $7 on the whole day. Just to put that in perspective, here is everything else I ate that day:

Breakfast: half of a banana;
Afternoon snack: two rolls;
Dinner: cereal.

I should mention that I am no stranger to “food challenges.” As an international development studies major in college I traveled on shoe-string budgets across South Asia, West Africa, Mexico and Eastern Europe, where I ate unidentifiable objects, strange fruits, and smelly vegetables. I forced myself to eat foods I did not like, and that I knew were likely not good for me, for months at a time.

But, for me, right now, there is something acutely different about this experience. It is strange to be living as an adult on this diet, struggling to get by with the tools in my own kitchen. Living on $6 a day isn’t an adventure—especially for those who have to do it every day, for weeks or months at a time.

Avert your eyes, my vegetarian and vegan friends: I went to the grocery store the night before, and I purchased some groceries that fit within my SNAP-Challenge-mandated-budget for the week. I was able to buy some eggs, rice, beans, frozen vegetables, some ramen noodles, a package of cheap processed chicken that was on sale, and some oil and seasoning. I was going to rely on some creative chicken dishes to pull me through the week, but this processed stuff has the taste and texture of a shiny, water-clogged, chicken-flavored sponge. I’m still debating whether I can force myself to chew on these leftover, processed bits from the chicken factory. Even though cereal for dinner leaves me hungry at the end of the day, at least it does not taste like moist foam.

So, what kinds of folks have to make these types of food choices and live on $6 a day? Eligible individuals include someone who lost their job or became disabled, or someone who is an independent contractors or struggling small business owner who is perpetually losing money or taking a loss. If you are under-employed—you are working but you aren’t earning enough to cover basic housing and food expenses—you also qualify for SNAP assistance, but not necessarily for the full amount of $6 a day.

But the kicker is that you cannot be receiving any other form of government mandated assistance, which means no Social Security, so Supplemental Security Income (SSI), no unemployment, no child support payments, no adoption stipends, or no other cash assistance.

[Ed. note - If you receive any of the benefits listed above, it does not necessarily disqualify you altogether from SNAP; however, your allotment under the program would be reduced.]

So if this economy has got you down, and you find yourself in any category above, SNAP is it. All you have to buy groceries—literally—is $6 a day. That’s all you get. That’s all you can legally get.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was quite surprised to learn about the paltry amount of the daily allotment for this program, and they wrote a great article about the challenge on Tuesday, you can see it here. I think they are going to write a follow up in the next few days as well, so here’s to the Trib for devoting some column-space to this important issue!

Today and Friday, in order to reflect the cuts that Congress has made, my budget is getting cut by fifty cents so the allotment is technically $6.17 a day. For this program to be cut, even if the funds are being diverted to another worthy cause, is an injustice. We must commit to restoring this vital public service, rather than robbing Peter to pay Paul and shuffling deck chairs around in our federal, state, and local budgets. We need a non-partisan commitment to make sure that, in this day and age, no one goes hungry in the United States of America. I am pleased to lend my hand to this fight.

Hungrily yours,
Natalia Rudiak

Monday, December 6, 2010

Natalia Rudiak: Taking on the SNAP Challenge

Today is my first day on the SNAP challenge with Just Harvest, and I have already had to make some tough food choices. For breakfast, I had a cup of tea and to make sure I could eat a decent dinner, I skipped lunch—a great way to start off a day of budget hearings! I’m not sure what I’m going to do for dinner yet, but I have some strict rules to follow:

  • I have an allowance of $6.67 a day for the first three days, then I have $6.17 for the last two days;

  • No one can buy me any food;

  • I can’t eat food that I already have in my house.

I’m going to post a couple of times this week just to check in and let everyone know how I am doing, but I think its going to be a hungry week. Can you imagine a child having to sit through a math or science class with hunger pains? What kind of a student can we reasonably expect that child to be? How will we break the cycle of poverty if we are unable to give our children the opportunities they need to focus on learning and not their hungry mom, dad, brothers or sisters?

Right now in City Council we’re putting together the 2011 City budget, in which we will dedicate substantial City funds to hunger groups in Pittsburgh. Last year we gave almost a half a million dollars to hunger organizations across Pittsburgh, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, the Urban League Hunger Services Network, Just Harvest, and more.

These community service organizations are essential allies in the fight against hunger in Pittsburgh, but with reduced SNAP funding their efforts are going to be stretched thinner and thinner. For example, at the Brookline Christian Food Pantry in Brookline, usage of the pantry has increased by more than 15% over last year, and seen similar increases in the years before that.

The proposed cuts to the SNAP program illustrate that actions motivated by political ideology on a national level trickle down to the local level. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. The underfunding of hunger programs in Washington DC puts strain on our own city and school budgets and reduces the efficacy of our own educational reform and economic development programs. Elected Officials at all levels of government are charged with protecting the health, welfare, and safety of you and your neighbors—this includes making sure that none of our neighbors go hungry.

So here’s to a week of awareness, of protest, and hopefully of action against hunger in Pittsburgh. Check back later this week!

Natalia Rudiak
City Councilwoman
Pittsburgh, District 4

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak takes the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge

Pittsburgh City Council’s Natalia Rudiak will be putting conspicuously less of her money where her mouth is starting December 6.

For five days (Dec. 6 – 10), Ms. Rudiak will be taking part in the SNAP Challenge, a poverty simulation exercise coordinated by Just Harvest, a Southside-based anti-hunger organization and created by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington D.C.

The challenge is named for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), upon which a record 42 million Americans depend to put meals on the table. In Allegheny County alone, over 150,000 households and individuals receive SNAP benefits.

For the first three days of the challenge, Rudiak will be allotted the total benefit amount per day for a SNAP recipient who reports no income – this amounts to $6.67 per day total. On Thursday and Friday, this benefit amount will be reduced by 50 cents to reflect a cut to SNAP benefits passed by Congress on Dec. 2 in order to fund the ‘Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act,’ aimed at improving child nutrition programs in schools. Starting in 2013, SNAP benefits will be reduced by $2.2. billion under the act. Benefits for a family of four would drop by $59 per month, according to FRAC.

The 'Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act' had been roundly criticized by child nutrition advocates across the country who contend that by subsidizing school meal programs with SNAP benefit funds, it effectively increases the risk of hunger for children and low-income families. Advocacy efforts have now turned to lobbying Congress to restore the SNAP cuts by some means before the close of the ‘lame duck’ session.

Rudiak has pledged to document her experience eating under the SNAP constraint via Facebook and Twitter updates (, as well as here on Just Harvest’s blog, so watch this space for updates!

“We’re thrilled that Councilwoman Rudiak is taking on the SNAP challenge, as we feel her high profile will bring due public attention to the hardships that so many of our neighbors face in trying to maintain a healthful diet on a fixed allotment,” said Tara Marks, Just Harvest Co-Director.

Just Harvest invites others in our region to take part in the SNAP Challenge! If you are interested, send an e-mail to for guidelines and details.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Speaking Out for the Pittsburgh Hunger Fund

The Pittsburgh Hunger Fund is a coalition made up of Just Harvest, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pittsburgh Community Services Inc., and hunger services at The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. The fund is apportioned yearly from Community Development Block Grants to the city's districts, and it’s been an important line of defense against hunger in our region. This past Monday Just Harvest joined our partner organizations in speaking out to City Council at a public budget hearing.

Just Harvest staff and board members attended the Nov. 29 budget hearing to offer testimony to Councilmembers Natalia Rudiak, Darlene Harris, Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus and R. Daniel Lavelle on the importance of the city’s continued funding. Board secretary Mary-Elizabeth McCarthy first addressed council on the effects of hunger on children and the elderly, highlighting the struggles that seniors face even when accessing food pantries. Invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mary-Elizabeth said that “government is the last resort for people who are hungry.”

Co-Director Tara Marks offered successes from the SNAP outreach, Summer Food outreach, and tax services that have been made possible with the Hunger Fund’s support.

“In these hard economic times more of your constituents are in need of help feeding their families,” said Tara, noting that so far this year, 1590 SNAP applications from individuals in the city have been processed). Additionally, said Tara, city residents received $2.3 million in total refunds from 1170 tax returns completed by Just Harvest, free of charge, as part of our work with the Money in Your Pocket Coalition (now supported by the United Way of Allegheny County) during tax year 2009. Reclaiming returns and Earned Income Tax Credit provided crucial relief for many of our neighbors stricken with financial stress.

“I’ve been in these people’s shoes. I’ve had to make the hard decision of whether to pay a bill or buy food,” said Child Nutrition Advocate Shauna Ponton.

“The recession we are facing has thrown thousands more families through a loop,” she continued. “It is important for these organizations to get the funding they are requesting so they will know that they can continue the great work that they are doing and provide services to the citizens of Pittsburgh.”

Council’s response was promising – though they acknowledged the current economy as an obstacle, Councilmen Kraus and Shields committed their support of at very least holding the line on the Hunger Fund contribution, if not increasing it for 2011. “As Americans, it speaks to our egalitarianism that we want to reach out and help one another,” said Councilman Shields, thanking the organizations for their persistence. “This is our ‘common wealth’, and I’d like to see a secure ‘floor’ – not just a ‘safety net’ – that allows all of us to stand on our own.”

Councilwoman Rudiak noted that it’s evident that people need the types of services offered by the Hunger Fund. She encouraged the groups to continue to share their stories of everyday people in need as a defense against the more negative connotations cast over food stamps and similar programs in recent times.

Just Harvest thanks City Council for its commitment to helping the Pittsburgh Hunger Fund help Pittsburghers in need!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Down on the (Urban) Farm...

This past Monday, Just Harvest Co-Director Ken Regal testified as part of Pittsburgh City Council's public hearing on zoning for urban agriculture.

Council is mulling over changes to the urban agriculture ordinance, which aim to make some of the provisions of the current policy friendlier to chicken-farmers and beekeepers in the city.

Just Harvest recognizes that removing barriers to urban farming represents yet another vital step in creating better access to nutritious food for city residents - especially for those living in areas otherwise underserved by retail outlets for healthy food. Here's what Ken had to say:

"Thank you for holding today’s hearing and for the opportunity to speak with you about the importance of encouraging small scale agriculture in the City of Pittsburgh.

"At first glance, it might seem that agriculture is out of place in an urban setting; that city life is the polar opposite of farm life. It is no surprise, therefore, that the city has often referred to land being used to grow food as “vacant” and has thought of animals other than traditional pets as exotic nuisances.

"But we live in a time when these false assumptions are falling by the wayside in cities throughout the country, and when the industrial approach to global food production is making people sick, leaving millions at risk of hunger, and wreaking havoc on the environment.

"We heartily endorse the changes to the city zoning code that make it easier for people to grow food for sale on land in our neighborhoods. We heartily endorse the zoning changes that enable city residents to raise a few chickens or put in a beehive, while setting some regulations that ensure that these activities are carried out responsibly.

"Small and medium scale urban agriculture is good for Pittsburgh. It makes for a more diverse and self-sufficient economy. It provides more sources of healthy, affordable food for consumers. It welcomes immigrants with small-scale business opportunity and access to culturally appropriate foods. It teaches a new generation that food comes from the ground, not from a microwavable plastic container. It keeps the city green. It turns land that is truly “vacant” into land that is productive and beneficial to the community. It can even protect the city from natural or man-made calamities that damage the global food production infrastructure.

"We encourage you to see these essential long-term benefits as a reason not only to pass these zoning changes, but to see them as a start of a broader process that actively encourages urban agriculture. We hope for instance that Council will take action in the coming months to also revise the fee structures that may put these urban agriculture opportunities out of reach for many. Few measures will come before the City Council this year that have as many potential benefits, and at so little cost.

"Provisions to encourage Urban Agriculture have been passed in many cities recently, including Seattle, Portland, Nashville, Albuquerque, and Cleveland. But in the hopes that we can find much better models for our future than Cleveland, I refer you to an article (see published last summer in the Times of London. It reported on the exciting growth of bee-keeping in downtown Paris. Paris has more than 300 registered beehives, including large colonies being raised on the roofs of the Paris Opera and the Grand Palais. So, if bees and chickens and locally grown food are good enough for Paris, they should be good enough for Pittsburgh."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just Harvest's '15 Minutes...'

Just Harvest dipped into the intersection of art and youth activism yesterday at the Andy Warhol Museum on Pittsburgh's North Side.

Co-Director Tara Marks spoke about JH's mission and principles to a group of high school-age women from the Warhol's 'Power Up' after-school program. The program combines design and silkscreen techniques with health education and community participation. Recently, the group has shown its work at the SPACE Gallery Downtown, as part of the Paper Politics exhibition of political printmaking this past summer.

The Warhol's Heather White, who helps to run the program, said that Power Up is in its second year and in the past has worked with organizations such as Planned Parenthood, The Birth Circle and The East End Food Co-Op. After one or more information sessions with an organization, the students design some form of print material based on its mission (usually, a silkscreened poster, t-shirt, or 'zine).

The ladies had great questions and very cool ideas inspired by JH's commitments to community organization, application assistance services, and policy advocacy. Tara engaged the group with stories of her own experiences as a food stamp client and social activist, and presented some examples of real cases from JH's service work.

We're all looking forward to seeing the great work that the Power Up team turns out - watch this space for exclusive previews!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Just Harvest (and you) in 'Action for Food'

Why is it that we see such scarcity of food for some in our land of plenty?

This was one of the main questions posed on Sunday Oct. 17, as Just Harvest Co-Director Ken Regal joined co-panelist Rev. John Creasy of Open Door Church and the Garfield Community Farm for a public discussion on local responses to hunger. The panel was held as part of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church’s Week of Action for Food, October 10 to 17.

“Hunger and poverty are not a matter of inadequate charity – they are a matter of inadequate justice,” said Ken. “When we as a society assert that people have a right to enough food to eat, and that it is nutritionally adequate, accessible, affordable, safe and healthy, and available to people without reliance on emergency food systems and charity – that is what will eliminate hunger.”

Ken spoke on Just Harvest’s policy work, focusing on the importance of removing barriers to participation in programs like food stamps, which make them “less effective, more intimidating, more bureaucratic, and discouraging” to people. Though over 150,000 people (1 in 7) in Allegheny County alone receive food stamp benefits, many more may actually qualify.

Ken estimated that one-third of all applications are rejected not because of an applicant’s income being too high, but due to the difficulties many clients face in providing documentation required by the Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Often these can involve eight to ten different documents and DPW instructions to applicants can be quite confusing.

When several in the audience asked how they could help out, Ken called on those present to ask their congressmembers to support child nutrition reauthorization via House Bill 5504 (the ‘Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act’). The child nutrition legislation, which governs school lunch, school breakfast, summer food and other key anti-hunger programs, is reauthorized every five years.

The Senate version of the child nutrition reauthorization bill (up for vote in the house sometime during the lame duck session between election day and the new year) funds its program improvements via a $2.2 billion cut to future food stamp benefits.

“You’ve heard the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’,” said Ken. “We’ve heard this being described as ‘robbing Peter to pay Peter.’ It’s really not a good idea.”

He added that Just Harvest has met with Representatives Tim Murphy, Mike Doyle and Jason Altmire to urge them to support the house version – and to find a responsible source of funding for it that does not draw from the much-needed food stamp program.

In closing, Ken conceded that there are many complicated causes and factors contributing to hunger, but that ultimately every organization – and each of us – has an important role in untangling and addressing the issues.

“There’s an assumption that in order to solve the hunger problem, we ‘only need to’ teach people how to cook, or shop better, or budget better,” he said. “But there is no ‘we only have to...’ – there are a million things that we need to do simultaneously. But whichever one of those things that we choose to do to help out is going to help to solve the problem.”

Here's how you can take action against the food stamp cuts!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Take action to prevent new rounds of budget cuts!

HB 2435 closes tax loopholes in order to preserve
health and human services, education

The unrelenting recession continued to take its toll on Pennsylvania's state budget in April. The Commonwealth's revenue shortfall reached $1.1 billion, and things could be worse by the time the fiscal year ends on June 30.

Some senators are saying the state cannot afford to spend more than $27.5 billion in the 2010-11 budget. That would require lawmakers to cut the budget back almost to 2007-08 spending levels.

A cuts-only budget - at a time when health care and public safety costs are rising - would force harmful reductions to services for children, seniors and people with disabilities. It would set the Commonwealth back by several years, while hurting the state's economy. Policymakers should take a more balanced approach to this budget crisis.

We need your help!

State Representative Dwight Evans has introduced HB 2435, legislation that would close tax loopholes and end special interest tax breaks, while preserving critical services for Pennsylvania families. This bill is scheduled to come before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for a vote during the week of May 24.

It will close corporate tax loopholes, enact a severance tax on natural gas production, assess an excise tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco, and close a sales tax giveaway that has put millions of your sales tax dollars in the pockets of big retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

The package also includes a reduction in the corporate tax rate and other business tax cuts long sought by the business community.

The package will raise
$370 million in the first year. Read more in a detailed overview of the revenue bill.

Take action today!

Call and ask
your House member to close tax loopholes and reform the tax code before making deep service cuts that will hurt Pennsylvania families. Tell them to support HB 2435!

Look up contact information for your representative (search by county or zip code). Don't wait! Give them a call today!

Or, you can send your state Representative a fax today, asking they support HB 2435. (Brought to you via PA Hunger Action Center)

Act Now

This information is brought to you via The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center is a non-partisan policy research project that provides independent, credible analysis on state tax, budget and related policy matters, with attention to the impact of current or proposed policies on working families. Learn more:

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Food Stamp Users, Same Old Argument

According to a recent article by the New York Times, the stigma of receiving food stamps has been lessened dramatically due to the continuing economic crisis. The authors of the article trace the slow rise in food stamp popularity from early 1990s to today. But as the article explains, however popular food stamps have become, there are always critics.

Criticism and dialogue is an important part of social policy discussions, but the arguments against food stamps and other safety net programs are tired, overused, and usually incredibly derogatory. Those who advocate for higher restrictions and federal cuts parrot the same argument over and over, with increasingly ridiculous metaphors: food stamps make you dependent, and that’s really bad. The most recent example of this is Andre Bauer, the lieutenant governor of South Carolina, who when asked about safety net programs replied that his grandmother “…told [him] as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.”

Though later Bauer said he regretted his comments, he defended his statements by saying that he was simply trying to “spark a discussion on how South Carolina will break the culture of dependency that pervades these programs.” Yes, but while these recycled comments from Bauer and others continue, nearly 1 in 5 Americans said they have not had enough money to buy food in the last month (FRAC, January 2010). 9.3 million people lost their jobs (Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2010). Millions of men, women, and children will feel the effects of “very low food insecurity”—skipping meals because they cannot afford enough food.

Regardless of whether safety net programs like food stamps create dependency like so many claim, these programs are responsible for feeding millions of hungry Americans everyday. People who have never dreamed of needing food stamps but are now feeling the pinch of this economy are applying and receiving benefits. Low income workers who were on food stamps before the economic downturn need food stamps more than ever. It is despicable that some Americans and even our elected officials would turn away a fellow American citizen at their time of need because they might become “dependent.” Let’s work together to end American hunger, rather than rehash old arguments against it.