The Somerset County Mobile Food Bank started in April 2012 as a single truck – repurposed and with a 35–inch beer distributor trailer hooked to the back. Organizer and volunteer coordinator Tom Shaffer can now see it’s becoming much more. This month, the program will be branching out into two new communities in Somerset County.
“It grows every month,” he said. “Every time we go to a town now, we’re getting more and more people signing up ... Word is getting out to the communities.”
The program was conceived in Somerset about a year and a half ago – under the name “Produce to People” – as an arm of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Since September 2012, the food truck has supplied poverty–level households with 40 to 50 pounds of fresh, relatively free produce each week – potatoes, cabbage, carrots and lettuce.
“You name it,” Shaffer said.
To qualify, a household needs to be earning less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold, which varies depending on household size. Somerset residents are not required to bring proof of income to qualify, simply a form of identification to prove their county residence. At the distribution point, registrants certify under penalty of perjury that their income meets the requirements. Participation in the Produce to People program is limited to one pick–up site per household, per month.
Customers are urged to attend local food pantries as well as avail themselves of the mobile food bank, if they are still in need. Shaffer said the program is not designed to replace area pantries, but to supplement them.
“We’re trying to help as many people as we can possibly help,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of people that need help.”
The added advantage of a roaming food truck is it can keep items that pantries don’t keep in stock (or simply can’t), such as fresh produce or high-demand items that are scooped up quickly at pantries.
Most of the goods they procure from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank are free, Shaffer said, and some items are priced at about 3 cents per pound.
“We can feed a household for between $2.50 and $3,” he said. “That’s basically enough food to help them out.”
Last month, Shaffer and his staff of 20 full-time volunteers served roughly 1,050 households on their weekly Wednesday and Thursday runs. Beginning this month, the organization will add two more towns to its new Tuesday routes: Hollsopple and Berlin.
“We allow 45 minutes for each community, but we’re usually there an hour,” he said. “Everything’s served right from the truck.”
Volunteer help converges on each location, to help with unloading goods from the truck and into customers’ vehicles or nearby residences.
At Calvary United Methodist Church in Windber, Windber Area High School students help each week.
Junior Stephanie Ponczek has been involved – along with several of her fellow Student Council members – since the beginning of the school year, when the truck started making its rounds.
“We thought it would be a good idea to go help out at the food bank and do anything we can,” she said.
The student volunteers can fulfill any sort of customer need, she said, but it’s mostly just heavy lifting. Many of the food bank registrants from Windber live at the Quemahoning Towers, right across from the church.
“I know a lot of people are grateful that they’re doing this,” she said.
Although recent changes in state graduation requirements mean students must now complete a “culminating project” – which usually involves generating a certain amount of community service hours – Ponczek said she feels it’s worth more than that.
“(Student council adviser Joe Podrebarac) brought it to our attention and we thought it was a good idea to get involved in the community,” she said.
“We were looking for a way to give back.”