Pennsylvania Budge Update

happy new yearHappy New Year and welcome to day 190 without a state budget here in Pennsylvania.  If you are keeping track, and I am, that is just over half of the 2015-16 fiscal year without a budget and almost that long without any funds being released at all.  Governor Wolfe’s refusal to approve of any stop gap funding in lieu of a passed budget came to an end just before 2015 did.  On December 29 the Governor announced he would line item veto the state budget sent to him by the legislature.  This action allows for $23.4 billion in emergency funds to be released.  These funds will flow to school districts, human service agencies and county governments.  Of that $23.4 billion, $18.4 million will go to the State Food Purchase Program.  Through this program cash grants are awarded to lead agencies in each county, allowing them to buy items in bulk, which are then distributed to smaller emergency food providers–food pantries and cupboards–within the county.

These funds are desperately needed by both the lead agencies and the smaller emergency food providers.  Right before Christmas I talked with a friend who had toured the Chester County Food Bank, our local lead agency, the week before our meeting.  She said they showed her group a large warehouse room with literally tons of food waiting to be distributed to the small providers once the funds were released.  The warehouse was running out of space and staff wasn’t sure how they were going to get the excess food out to the pantries and cupboards.  Only so much food can fit on the truck.  Additionally, the pantries and cupboards only have so much storage room, and can therefore only handle so much food being delivered at one time.

Now that some of these funds have been released, the delivery logistics for this food will have to be addressed quickly, because the need at the smaller pantries and cupboards is great.  Yesterday I returned to empty shelvesvolunteering at the local food pantry after having taken last week off.  I was shocked at how empty the shelves were.  We were down to just three types canned vegetables from our usual five or more. We had only one type of cold cereal or oatmeal instead of several selections of cereal, oatmeal, and pancake mix from which clients can choose.  We had no spaghetti or dried beans and were almost out of rice, both white and brown.

Luckily the crisis caused by the lack of funding occurred just after the holidays, a time of increased food donations to food pantries and cupboards.   A staff member and I were able to unpack 10-12 boxes of donated food to augment the food items still on our shelves.  Although very helpful, relying heavily on donations to provide food often leaves recipients at the whim of what people choose to donate.  As a result of the holidays, we unpacked several cans of cranberry sauce and black olives, both tasty as an accent to your holiday meal, but neither something you want to eat a whole can of by itself!  We also found numerous cans of soupcanned soup in these boxes, and while soup may seem like, and is, a good thing to donate to a food drive, canned soup contains an outrageous amount of sodium.  Giving a client several extra cans of soup to make up for lacking items which could be used in meals clients prepare, like dried beans,  means they are most certainly eating a more unhealthy diet this month.

I asked when we could hope to see some relief, in the form of food shipments, that these released funds promise.  I was told we will get at least one food shipment in the next week, but how big it is, is anybody’s guess.  Only so much food will fit on the truck and it delivers to multiple food pantries and cupboards each trip.  I am hopeful that when I arrive to volunteer next Tuesday I will see evidence of the funds Governor Wolfe released in the form of fuller shelves.  In the meantime, I hope our elected officials take seriously the job they have been elected to do, for which they are still being paid, budget or not, and work in earnest to reach a compromise leading to the passage of a state budget.

The Struggle Continues

pennsylvania sealOver a month ago, on September 30th, I wrote a post about how the Pennsylvania budget impasse was impacting one of our local food pantries.  Well it is 43 days later and we still do not have a budget in the state of Pennsylvania.  Today is day 135 without a budget, and while I have not been back to that particular food pantry, I can only imagine their situation is even more bleak.  Food banks and pantries across the Commonwealth, in places like the city of Carlisle and  Juniata, Bucks and Carbon County, are struggling to meet the needs of the numerous people in their communities who rely on them to make their food ends meet.

According to the PA Department of Agriculture website, Pennsylvania leads the nation in the amount of food assistance it provides to its residents under the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP).  Actually, only a handful of states even provide state revenue for an emergency assistance food program for low income residents.  This program serves PA residents with an annual income at or below 150% of the poverty line ($27,795 for a family of three).  Through this program cash grants are awarded to lead agencies in each county, allowing them to buy items in bulk, which are then distributed to smaller emergency food providers within the county.  These food purchases are made at wholesale or competitively bid prices to further stretch the funds available.

This week the struggle to continue to assist people needing emergency food, while dealing with the lack of funds resulting from budget impasse, hit home once again.  Tuesday is my usual day to volunteer in the other local food pantry in my neighborhood.  When I arrived I was informed about the new guidelines for distributing food we had to follow as a result of the lack of funding from the state.  Basically we are having to ration what we have, because we do not know how long we will have to go until we receive food from the lead county agency that receives SFPP empty shelvesfunding.  For smaller households, 3 and under, the reduction in the amount of non-perishable food they received was not that noticeable, but for the larger households, and on Tuesday we packed food for two households of 6, the non-perishable food allotment was almost cut in half.  Luckily we have a wide variety of produce in stock and because it is perishable, must be moved in regular quantities.  Between the produce and donated items, like bread, we were able to augment the diminished supply of non-perishable food the clients received.  But winter is coming and the produce supply will dwindle and the amount of donated bread varies from week to week, so some weeks we will have little with which to supplement the non-perishable food.

The approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas causes further concern for many food banks and pantries.  This is a time of year when utilization of emergency food services surges, as people who may not regularly frequent emergency food providers turn to them for the food for their Thanksgiving and Christmas tables.  Without the necessary state funding, meeting this extra demand will be a challenge for many food banks and pantries, like King’s Kettle Food Pantry in Shippensburg, who has already had to draw on extra funds they had set aside for their annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner baskets, just to keep the doors open these past few months.  Similarly, Project SHARE (Survival Help and Recipient Education) in Carlisle wonders if their Thanksgiving meal boxes will be able to be distributed if they do not receive their state funds.  They currently have less than 100 turkeys, but expect 1500 families to turn out to receive these Thanksgiving meal boxes.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is my youngest son’s favorite holiday.  He loves turkey and all the other side dishes that adorn our Thanksgiving table.  I can’t imagine looking into his expectant eyes and telling him that we will not be able to have Thanksgiving this year.  Even more difficult to imagine would be having to tell my family on a daily basis that we will have to eat less in order to make our diminished allowance from the food pantry last for the month.  If you live in Pennsylvania I strongly urge you to contact the Governor’s office and your local members of the General Assembly to insist they seriously work on reaching a compromise to get the budget passed.  These are real people who are being affected by this stalemate.

http://www.governor.pa.gov/contact/

http://www.legis.state.pa.us

Additionally, I urge you to seek out your local food pantry and ask what their current need might be.  Many food pantries have a list of their most needed items if you want to donate food items.  If your local food pantry is distributing turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, you can also give them the grocery store coupon you may have earned for a free turkey. Cash donations are always appreciated as well.  Food pantries may have the ability to purchase items at a discounted rate, further stretching any monetary donation.

 

Pennsylvania Budget Impasse

half dome
Image courtesy of porbital at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The first time I remember ever hearing anything about budget impasses or government shutdowns was during the fall/winter of 1995-96 when the Federal Government shutdown twice after President Clinton vetoed a spending bill sent to him by Congress.  I remember feeling apprehensive at the thought of our government shutting down.  How long would it last?  What would happen?  Once it was all over, however, what I remember most about these shutdowns was that Yosemite National Park was closed during the shutdown and people who had planned vacations to the park were quite upset.  (I was living in California at the time.)  Upon reflection, I’m certain there were other, more pressing problems this shutdown caused, like the curtailment of health and welfare services for military veterans, or the suspension of disease surveillance by the CDC, or the furlough of government workers during the holiday season.

Fast forward to the present where it seems that government shutdowns or the threat of a shutdown is a regular occurrence.  Take for instance my state of Pennsylvania, where on June 30, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the budget bill passed by the General Assembly.  It is three months later and the state of Pennsylvania is still operating without a budget.  Just yesterday (9/29) Governor Wolf vetoed a stopgap spending bill.  While most governmental functions continue, billions of dollars are not flowing to public schools and other social services providers.  Caught in this budget impasse are food banks, pantries and other emergency food providers who rely on food from the state food purchase program.  Typically food banks and pantries participating in the state food purchase program receive a line of credit which can be drawn down to purchase food to be used for distribution at the food bank or pantry.  Unfortunately, no emergency food provider has received their current fiscal year allotment.

empty shelvesFortunately, not all emergency food providers are feeling the pinch as a result of this budget impasse, due in part to how they are funded.  For instance Philabundance, which is funded mostly with private donations, is probably not feeling the loss of these funds, but at the small food pantry where I volunteered yesterday the effects of the lack of this state funding were readily apparent.  The shelves that hold the state supplied food were only half full.  The pantry had no milk and very little meat, most of which was ground beef.  I have never seen the supplies so depleted!  Clients left the pantry with a smaller supply of food.  Each week that passes without a resolution to this budget stalemate will result in a dwindling supply of state food for this pantry’s clients.

The purpose of this blog post is not to point fingers or lay blame on one side or the other.  Rather, I would like to make readers aware of the consequences resulting from the current unwillingness to compromise that seems to exist at all levels of government.  These are real people, often children, senior citizens and people who are disabled, who are being impacted.  I worry that as a society we are becoming complacent with our politicians’ unwillingness to compromise.  Or even worse, that we view their actions as a virtue.  Unfortunately, there are real life consequences when both sides are unwilling to negotiate.  The time has come for all politicians to get back to the work of governing, and sometimes that means sitting down with someone who has political beliefs different from the ones you hold and working together through compromise to reach a solution.