Wolf visits Richland clinic

Gov. Tom Wolf meets with local politicians and tours Alliance Medical Services to talk with administrators and counselors at the drug addiction treatment facility on Scalp Avenue in Richland Township on Thursday, July 21, 2016.

HARRISBURG – Too many Pennsylvanians cannot count on eating three meals a day, state officials said Wednesday, yet according to one estimate, Pennsylvania residents are missing out on $90 million worth of federal food assistance for which they are eligible.

Gov. Tom Wolf is rolling out a four-year plan to help feed residents without steady access to food. One of the first big missions will be to enroll those who are eligible for assistance.

In Pennsylvania, 1 in 7 people now rely on help from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program to buy groceries, said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

The Harrisburg-based food bank hosted a press conference on the state’s food security initiative Wednesday, attended by members of Wolf’s cabinet.

Boosting participation won’t cost the state because the program is federally funded, said Arthur, who estimated that Pennsylvanians are missing out on $90 million per year in help from the program.

One big hurdle is resistance to accepting help, especially among older Pennsylvanians. Seven in 10 seniors eligible for aid don’t apply for benefits, said Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas.

Aging Secretary Teresa Osbourne said many seniors perceive a stigma associated with getting benefits through the program commonly referred to as “food stamps.”

This “senior SNAP gap” is a glaring problem that must be addressed before food insecurity can be eliminated, she said.

Wolf’s plan comes almost exactly a year after he issued an executive order creating the Food Security Partnership, drawing upon six cabinet agencies. It has since worked with businesses and charities to draw up strategies and programs to create a “hunger-free Pennsylvania,” said Dallas.

Hunger’s impact has far-reaching consequences, Dallas noted.

Hungry students don’t perform as well academically. Ill fed workers are less productive. 

People with poor nutrition may be more likely to end up seeking medical care, driving up health care costs.

Seniors without adequate food are more likely to require nursing home care, Osbourne said.

Department of Aging officials are working to overcome the stigma associated with getting help, Osbourne said. One strategy identifies seniors who enroll in the state’s discount prescription drug programs. Those who are income eligible for are likely qualified for other government assistance, as well.

Single seniors are eligible for the SNAP program as long as their annual income doesn’t exceed $23,544 a year, according to Human Service guidelines. For couples, income limits are $31,872 a year.

A senior couple can get help with prescription costs through the Lottery-funded program with an annual income that doesn’t exceed $31,500 a year.

The aging department tries to provide helpers to seniors to make sure they fill out applications correctly. They state also has sent notices to lawmakers to urge them to connect seniors with assistance if they show up in district offices looking for help.

Other departments are working to feed the hungry, too.

The state budget sets aside $1 million for an agriculture surplus program that helps farmers recover the costs of food donated to food banks. 

Often the donated food may not meet standards required to sell to grocery stores but is still suitable to eat.

“This is food that might be plowed under or left hanging in the trees,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.

Under a pilot program, the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank acquired 128,740 pounds of Pennsylvania-grown apples, with a retail value of $188,604, for an actual cost of only $41,180, or about 32 cents per pound. The apples were packed in three-pound bags for distribution among the food bank’s 27-county region.

As the surplus program rolls out statewide, food banks could get about 1.5 million pounds of fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat products, Redding said.

“If there is one state positioned to end hunger, it’s Pennsylvania,” Redding said. “We have the resources, the people and the will.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.