Effort makes real difference for area's hungry
The Indiana County Community Action Program’s food pantries help feed more than 5,000 people each month, and the national Make a Difference Day, coming Saturday, is one of the most important days of the year in keeping the shelves of the pantries stocked.
Since 2007, The Indiana Gazette has been collaborating with ICCAP on Make a Difference Day to collect donations of food and cash to help feed the county’s hungry residents. According to Michelle Faught, ICCAP’s executive director, the local effort has raised donations of about $2,000 in cash and collected between 1 and 1ﾽ tons of food each year on Make a Difference Day, sponsored nationally by USA Weekend Magazine and the Points of Light Foundation.
“It’s one of the five major food collections of the year” for the ICAAP pantries, said Jesse Miller, food bank director.
Each month, about 1,900 households in Indiana County receive from an ICCAP pantry a bag of 18 to 25 supplemental food items. The bags typically contain nonperishable vegetables and fruits, pastas, sauces, cereal, day-old bakery items donated by area stores and items donated from area food drives.
This year on Make a Difference Day, local organizers are planning a concerted effort to help one particular segment of the county’s hungry — children who leave school on Friday afternoons and don’t have much to eat until they come back to school on Monday mornings.
Jill McKinney, a school nurse in the Purchase Line School District, piloted the Power Pack Program in Indiana County five years ago to help such children. Through the program, school nurses and teachers identify students who apparently don’t get enough food over the weekends. The students, McKinney said, may always appear hungry, may always be anxious to get to the school cafeteria or may hoard food.
In the Purchase Line district, McKinney starts with the list of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Teachers are then asked for their input based on what they know about the student and his or her family — for example, does the student come from a single-parent household?
McKinney said a form is then sent home to parents, giving them the option of having their child receive food donations for the weekend under the Power Pack Program. The students’ names, race and gender are kept confidential.
McKinney said participating students are called to the school nurse’s office two Fridays each month and child-friendly nonperishable foods distributed through the Power Pack Program are put in their book bags that are then zipped shut. The students are told not to open their book bags during the bus trip home.
The eight to 12 food items given to each student for weekend meals include soups with pop-top lids; individual fruit cups; cereal cups; instant oatmeal; canned fruits with pop-top lids; granola/cereal bars; juice boxes; ravioli; macaroni and cheese; microwavable meals; pudding or Jell-O cups; and crackers with peanut butter or cheese.
Faught said the program is now serving about 500 students at 10 schools in seven school districts in Indiana County.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Make a Difference Day, volunteers from several schools and church youth groups and Indiana University of Pennsylvania students will accept donations for the food pantries at several locations in the county.
For donations of food, ICCAP recommends nonperishable items such as canned fruits, vegetables and soups, box dinners, pasta, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce and personal hygiene items.
At the collection sites, volunteers will sort out donated items that are suitable for the Power Pack Program.
Monetary donations to ICCAP’s food pantries are also welcome. Miller said ICCAP can purchase food from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank at prices far lower than consumers pay at grocery stores, as low as 10 cents per pound for nonperishable foods and 3 cents per pound for produce.
Checks should be made payable to “ICCAP,” and “food bank” should be entered on the check’s memo line.
Make a Difference Day was established as a national day of service.
“It’s a great opportunity for youths in schools to get involved in our communities and volunteer,” said Hastie Kinter, the Gazette’s Newspaper in Education coordinator. “Part of education is giving back to communities, and Make a Difference Day provides them with an opportunity to do that.”