Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Food Stamp Application #5,000: A Bittersweet Milestone

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 Shauna Ponton - Advocating for Child Nutrition Year-Round

This is the first of a periodic series of staff profiles that will appear on Just Blogging!

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 Please write “Summer Food Program” in subject line.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taking a Look Back at 2011...

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!)