Mary Russell waited.
She waited, and waited, and then waited some more.
Russell didn’t receive the food stamps supplied through Welfare she so heavily relies on until June 23. That’s 23 days into June with no way to purchase food for herself or her 19-year-old daughter after using up her food stamps from May.
Russell is on disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Her daughter graduated from high school this year. They do not have a car. There is a bus line a couple blocks away from where Russell lives in the Pittsburgh Housing Authority complex in Homewood North. Russell, though, doesn’t feel safe waiting at the bus stop. Instead, she takes a jitney to the grocery store — an extra expense taking away money from other necessities.
An average trip to the grocery store takes Russell about three hours. She arranges for a jitney to pick her up, take her to a store in Lawrenceville, and has to have another jitney ready to take her home.
The combination of not getting her food stamps, and not having easy access to healthy food such as fruits and vegetables, left Russell and her daughter to go without eating for four straight days in June.
Four straight days without eating in the middle of Pittsburgh.
“It was so hard going to bed, and your stomach is growling and you’re hungry and you want to eat and you can’t,” said Russell. “You can’t get anywhere, you can’t do anything.”
But what choice does Russell have?
The closest grocery store to Homewood is the Shadyside Giant Eagle located 1.7 miles away, according to “A Menu for Food Justice,” a report on hunger in the city of Pittsburgh complied by Zachary Murray, an Emerson Hunger Fellow.
Russell can’t exactly walk to the grocery store. A roundtrip to the Shadyside Giant Eagle would be more than three miles, heavy bags weighing her down on the way home.
Russell doesn’t want to take the bus because she doesn’t think it is safe. The nearest bus stop is a couple blocks away on Brushton Avenue — an area Russell said is riddled with drug and gun activity.
She moved to Homewood in early April. A shooting left one person dead near Brushton Avenue a few days later.
“You’re waiting for a bus,” Russell said, “and you don’t know if you’re going to get shot or if the bus is going to come first.”
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While Russell’s situation may seem extreme, she is not the only one struggling on a daily basis in the city.
Pittsburgh has the worst hunger problem of any city in the United States with a similar population size. In fact, 47 percent of people in the city live in what are known as “food deserts” — areas without ready access to healthy and fresh foods, according to “A Menu for Food Justice.”
Of course, there are some people living in food deserts that have no problem getting to food, and there are people living where healthy foods are readily available who still go hungry. Nonetheless, hunger has become a problem in Pittsburgh.
“We believe that we have a longstanding Jewish mandate that says that we have an obligation to do something about these horrific circumstances,” said Rabbi Ron Symons of the Tikkun Olam Center for Social Justice at Temple Sinai and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Symons and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable teamed up with Just Harvest, an organization working to end hunger and poverty.
Just Harvest helps people like Russell get the benefits they need and also acts on the governmental level to mobilize and advocate for economic justice.
Russell and her daughter moved to Homewood in April from Beaver County. They are supposed to receive food stamps at the beginning of each month. By the end of the month, there is usually little or no food or stamp value left.
Problems with Russell’s Welfare case in Beaver has led to a delay in the arrival of her food stamps every month after her move to Homewood. She claims that these issues are the result of carelessness in the Welfare system.
“[My case worker] did not do her job right, so my family suffered because somebody did not care in the Welfare system,” she said. “There are people out there in the Welfare system who are rude and really don’t care about you. It’s the truth.”
Several attempts were made to elicit a response from the Welfare Department. The Beaver County Assistance Department, which controls Welfare in Beaver County, declined an interview but gave the Chronicle a phone number for the Welfare Communications Office in Harrisburg. That phone number, however, is disconnected and no longer in service.
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While four days is the the longest time Russell and her daughter have gone without eating, there have been other days when they went hungry.
She has made multiple calls to the Welfare office in Beaver. The last time, her case worker said that she couldn’t do anything for her and hung up the phone.
It is easy for people to give up because of frustration when they do not receive their benefits, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest. That’s when his organization tries to help.
Just Harvest deals with issues between people receiving benefits and the Welfare system on a regular basis.
“The Department of Public Welfare will not say so, but the reality is they depend on people giving up as part of their system,” said Regal. “They don’t have enough staff to serve the people who are in need.”
In Pennsylvania, about one-third of food stamp applications are rejected, the main reason being people fail to submit all of the required paperwork. Some of these problems are an applicant’s fault, but some are not.
“We think there’s something seriously wrong with that,” Regal said.
Just Harvest uses political advocacy to stop budget cuts from Welfare. On June 20, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down the Farm Bill, which would have cut food stamps by $20 billion over the next 10 years. Just Harvest activists called local representatives, urging them to vote against the bill.
While Democrats in the House voted against the Farm Bill, including Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Swissvale), Republicans went both ways. Some voted in favor, including Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair), and some voted against it because they thought that it didn’t go far enough, including Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley).
“Until [they] walk a mile in Ms. Russell’s shoes and look Ms. Russell in the eyes and say ‘here’s why I think you get too much money in food stamps,’ [they] need to reconsider [their] stance on this issue,” Regal said.
Murphy released a statement on his webpage explaining why he voted in favor of the Farm Bill.
“Numerous congressional audits, hearings and investigations have revealed agriculture programs are spinning out of control, have quadrupled in cost, and are too often scammed,” said Murphy. “In a time of dwindling resources, the bill would have targeted needed resources to put these programs back on track, guaranteeing that those who qualify for nutrition assistance receive it.”
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Just Harvest works with the community and with public policy to improve conditions in neighborhoods like Homewood.
Regal said that there is no specific plan in place for Homewood, but there is a possibility for an emerging mobile market business, which would bring healthy food to areas where it is not easily accessible.
Russell liked the idea of a mobile market coming to the area. She also suggested that Homewood should have a weekly farmers market. There is already a food bank once a month there, but she said it lacks healthy choices.
“You see people coming back with cakes and things like that,” Russell said. “You don’t see meats. I think meats should be a big thing. I think fruits and vegetables should be a big thing. They don’t offer stuff like that.”
The United States is the most overfed and malnourished nation in the world, according to a recent article on nationofchange.org. The article points out that this paradox is partially caused by overeating nutritionally dead food laden with high fructose corn syrup — cakes, etc.
“What’s a cake going to do for you? If you’re going to have a food bank, do it right,” Russell said. “Food banks should be better in what they provide.”
She applied to move to East Liberty where she will be closer to grocery stores and feel safer.
“They’re just letting Homewood go and I see that now,” Russell said. “It’s unfair to the people like myself who need to get around, who need to get to a store, who need to do this or that for their family, and they offer nothing in Homewood and it’s depressing.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)