Cathy Stone usually cans cherries, apples, pears and peaches picked from the trees surrounding her Windber home.
A housemother whose husband is on disability, Stone does not have any jars of fresh fruit after a late-winter snowfall killed the crops.
“It devastated us,” Stone said quietly, standing beside her husband, Robert, and daughter Melody, 11, as they walked through the line Wednesday at the Somerset County Mobile Food Bank outside Calvary United Methodist Church in Windber.
“My pantry is bare.”
Stone is not alone. Typically associated with the big cities, a hunger epidemic is plaguing families throughout the outlying reaches of Somerset and Cambria counties. Mobile Food Bank, a partner of Produce to People, has purchased a 35-foot renovated beer trailer to supply food to families and the elderly who often are isolated from the nearest food pantry.
When the mobile pantry began last month, the Rev. Barry Ritenour said organizers expected about 500 families at stops in Boswell, Hooversville, Central City, Windber, Meyersdale, Confluence and Rockwood. Instead, the Mobile Food Bank served 1,159 families, and was forced to even send the truck back to Somerset for a second load of food on one of the stops.
“When we first looked at this about two years ago, we received a lot of resistance from food pantries and other officials who said we didn’t have a major need,” Ritenour said. “But it’s quite obvious when you feed 1,200 families the first time out that there’s a hunger issue.”
A survey conducted by organizers is alarming: Of the 379 families surveyed, nearly 40 percent of the individuals are disabled and 58 percent of the households are troubled by unemployment. To make matters worse, more than 50 percent have to travel more than 10 miles for groceries, with 10 percent having to drive more than 20 miles to the nearest store.
Ritenour said about 65 percent of those served by the Mobile Food Bank are seniors or disabled.
“I talked to a lady in Boswell Heights, and asked if she goes to the food pantry four blocks away,” he said. “She said, ‘No, I can’t get there.’ How does she carry 40 to 50 pounds of food home with her walker?”
Or there is the story of a terminally ill man in Central City, who immediately devoured a bag of potatoes handed out at a stop last month. When asked, the man said he hadn’t eaten for two or three days after his food stamps were stopped due to his receiving free medications from a pharmaceutical company.
“The guy was hungry,” Ritenour said. “There wasn’t much too him. He was just stick and bones.”
Ritenour said he’s also conducted a study of common foods sold at rural stores, such as macaroni and cheese, apple sauce, apple juice and hot dogs. He said a person living outside of Somerset would pay between $3,500 to $5,000 a year more if they had to buy the same items at those stores. On Wednesday a line circled around the corner of the United Methodist Church in Windber as families waited for food from the refrigerated truck. They pushed grocery carts and carried laundry baskets and cardboard boxes to take the goods home.
Volunteers handed out a pound of hot dogs, a pound of rice, three pounds of carrots, two pounds of fresh broccoli, four cans of pears, three pounds of onions, a pound of spaghetti, two cans of pinto beans, 10 pounds of potatoes and a head of cabbage. Fresh tomatoes and peppers were brought in by Grandma’s Produce in Scalp Level.
“This is the stuff we are missing in the food pantry,” said Stone, who volunteers at the Compassion House pantry in Windber, which serves about 120 families, including her own. “We don’t have any fresh fruit and vegetables. It means 1,000 percent to us.”
Windber resident Paul Fleegle, 71, stood in line, two years after being laid off from the nearby Kuchera Plant. He receives Social Security, but it’s barely enough to pay for rent, insurance and his car.
“You don’t have any money left,” he said. “It’s difficult.”
Fleegle said he’s even run out of food once or twice, and had to call his son to “ask him for leftovers.”
Nicola DiNatile, 70, of Windber agreed.
“It’s rough. Very rough,” he said.
Produce to People, sponsored by Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, provides fresh produce and other perishable and non-perishable items to needy families. Flood City Church in Richland has been sending volunteers to Produce to People and the Mobile Food Bank in Somerset County, and is looking to organize a similar program for neighboring Cambria.
Renee George from the church carried a basket of groceries to an elderly woman’s van.
“They’re so appreciative,” she said. “They always feel like they need to tip the volunteers.
“There was a young girl last month who said, ‘I’m so embarrassed to do this.’ I said, ‘We’ve all been there. Someday, you’ll have a chance to pay it forward.’”
While the volunteers cannot accept the tips, they returned from a previous trip with $9 in tips that were given to the program, Ritenour said.
Stone knows just how difficult it is.
“These people don’t have transportation or jobs,” she said. “It’s depressed around here.”