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Just Harvest promoting seeds of change

By Pamela Diana

Point Park News Service

Just Harvest opened its doors in 1987 in a closed-down church with a staff of three and a budget of $80,000.

The program gains credibility in the 1990s through its study on childhood hunger gets additional funding and moves into an old high school.

Today it’s located in the Terminal Building with a staff of 7-8 people and a budget of $500,000.

Just Harvest has been working for 25 years to help end hunger and poverty in Allegheny County with providing advocacy, mobilization and economic justice to the poor and disadvantaged people of Pittsburgh.

“It’s difficult and overwhelming when a person has no money, no transportation and has a family to feed and sometimes they just slip through the cracks; we’re here to them get the services they need,” says Ken Regal, Executive Director of Just Harvest.

Working for ACORN and the Hunger Action Coalition in the early 1980s, Regal was instrumental in bringing the School Breakfast Program to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and then expanding it throughout Allegheny County.

It was the first campaign he worked on and one of the actions that lead to the creation of Just Harvest.

“Pittsburgh was one of the last cities in America to participate in the School Breakfast Program, and my job was to persuade the district to initiate the program,” says Regal.  The federal government funded the costs of operating the program in the Pittsburgh School District, but they weren’t facilitating it, he said.  Because of the advocacy work of Just Harvest and the support of the many parents in the pilot program, an entire generation of children has grown up eating breakfast in the schools.  “It’s been immensely gratifying to me that 10,000  to 12,000 kids are eating a nutritious breakfast everyday at the taxpayer’s expense in the public schools because of all the work we did 26 years ago,” says Regal.

“The School Breakfast Program is proof that when you work on long-term policy implications of hunger, it can have much more impact than if you just collect food and give it to people — the long-term solution just keeps on going,” says Regal.

Regal was then asked to become the Co-Director of the newly created Just Harvest in 1987.

Just Harvest started in a closed-down church in Homestead with a three-person staff, a ten-person board of directors and a budget of $60,000-$80,000.  Their program focused on advocating and lobbying for federal food programs as well as community education on the hunger problem in Pittsburgh.

In the late 1980s with the steel industry bust in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, more people needed food stamps because they were out of work.  More funding became available and the agency grew and moved to the old Bishop Boyle High School in 2002.

Later in the 2000s brought growth from the tax project and food stamp outreach program to its current size of 7-8 people plus seasonal tax staff and a budget of $450,000 to $500,000 per year.

Needing more space, the agency moved again to the Terminal Building in the Southside of Pittsburgh.

Helping clients with a sustainable program to receive food

One of their services is assisting clients to receive food stamps from the Welfare Department and WIC checks from the Women, Infant and Children Program.  “One in every seven people in Allegheny County receives food stamps, “ according to Regal.  Sometimes the process can be overwhelming and eligible people end up feeling frustrated and don’t apply, so they end of not having enough food on the table for their families.  Regal estimates that Just Harvest gets about 2,000 calls per year about food stamp assistance and last year they were able to process applications for more than 1,300 people.

“No one has a carved a broader niche than Just Harvest in their ability to serve the client one-on-one with benefits,” says Rochelle Jackson, a public policy advocate for the agency who supervises the Food Stamps campaign.  A single parent, a food stamp recipient herself and a client of Just Harvest 12 years ago, Jackson is now resident expert on the topic and uses her experience to help others. “In addition to my Associate’s Degree in Political Science, my experience with Just Harvest as a Welfare expert has helped me professionally,” she says.  Jackson is pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology at Carlow University.

How the program works is that Just Harvest electronically prepares the application and submits it to the Pennsylvania Welfare Department on the person’s behalf, plus follows up on the process if there’s a problem with the application or documents supporting it.  The entire process takes about 30 days, from pre-screening on the phone, submitting the application, and collecting and submitting documentation.  Regal says a file is kept on each applicant so they can intervene if there’s a problem.  He estimates that over the past five years eligible poor and disadvantaged people have received about $5.5 million worth of food stamp benefits because of our help.  “It’s all about sustainable services, once you get them into the system, then they’re able to help themselves, says Regal.

Just Harvest also is currently working with the Women, Infant and Children’s Program (WIC) to make the paperwork for benefits required only once a year, rather than twice a year.

“Another exciting program that we’re working on is the food stamp exchange with the farmer’s markets,” says Regal.

When food stamps were paper, most farmers accepted them at their stands and tens of thousands of dollars were being spent every year in Pittsburgh by poor people to get good, locally grown, affordable, nutritious food on the tables for their families – and it was going right into local farmer’s pockets, says Regal.  He said that amount went to zero overnight when food stamps became electronic in 2004 and participants were issued debit cards.  “We are on the cusp of solving that program in getting a system back in place in Pittsburgh,” says Regal.

The system will run a wireless electronic machine kiosk where food stamp users can get tokens in exchange for their electronic food stamps.  They can use the tokens to shop at the farmer’s stands.  Farmers will be then reimbursed with checks for their tokens.  “So people will get good nutritious, affordable food; and we’re able to serve as a mediatory to make that happen and farmers will be able to do more business,” says Regal.

The new process should be in place by spring 2013.

In July 2012, Regal was named Executive Director.  For 25 years, his duties have always been managing fundraising, financial management, program design and new program development, and with his promotion, he will be responsible for overall management at the organization.

Information about their services makes way via newsletters, flyers, brochures and conversation through food pantries; the United Way’s 211 Human Services Information Systems;  churches, community centers, social service agencies, neighborhood information fairs, and community festivals; mass media and through our whole network of  friends and allies around the community, says Regal.

Funding for Just Harvest comes from federal, state and county funds as well as the United Way and company and individual contributions.  It has two main fundraisers a year – The Empty Bowls Dinner, a joint fundraiser with the Community Food Bank, and the Autumn Harvest Dinner and auction.

Marva Brown, a broad member of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, says The Empty Bowls Dinner is getting more popular every year.  “It’s amazing how many interesting-looking bowls are donated from school art classes, Pittsburgh artists and celebrities,” says Brown.  She says the meal is meager, but that’s the idea, to see how the hungry have to live every day.  Soup and bread are donated from restaurants around Pittsburgh, says Brown.  The Empty Bowls Dinner is held in the spring according to Brown.

The Autumn Harvest Dinner held in the fall, features a dinner with an auction and all proceeds benefit Just Harvest programs.

Public policy advocacy covers all kinds of long-term policy issues such as the Farm Bill, the State Budget or protecting safety net programs for the poor and disadvantaged from the Fiscal Cliff Debate (about guide cuts and federal spending); or right down to the level of how the city or county run their summer food programs, says Regal.

The future plans for the agency  is to keep their full and part-time seasonal staff to a slow and steady growth depending upon challenging changes in policy and public benefits as the political landscape changes, says Regal.  Their goal is to be well-equipped to service all customers, donors and volunteers.  Regal says that earlier this year they completed a strategic plan and staff re-structuring that will have them at a total of 10 staff (8 full-time and 2 part-time, + 10 or so part-time seasonal tax staff) as soon as a current hiring process is completed.

“The network of problems that poor people face is like this knot of things you can’t unravel,” says Regal.  Just Harvest strives to assist by advocating for the poor and disadvantaged, working on solutions, and changing the rules to make it better for them,” says Regal.

For more information on Just Harvest, visit www.justharvest.org

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