Last month, the state’s 2015-16 budget impasse finally came to an end — more than nine months after it started. But there was little time to celebrate. As quickly as one budget debate ended, a new one began.
Legislators and the governor now must begin in earnest to craft and finalize a 2016-17 budget. They have two months to do it. The state’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30 each year, and May and June are the most critical months for finding consensus.
Despite the differences between the Democratic governor and Republican legislature last year, they were able to find a few shared priorities. Among them was a decision to set aside $1 million to fund the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS).
With PASS, the state’s charitable food organizations will work with Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector and farm communities to feed those in need. Millions of pounds of Pennsylvania-grown fruits and vegetables that otherwise would go to waste each year instead will support nutritious family meals.
PASS was created by Act 113 of 2010. The program had never been funded beyond the pilot phase, until now.
Let’s hope the modest accomplishments with PASS last year are a sign of progress for this fiscal year.
Because as important as PASS is, the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP) remains the critical lifeline for food banks. SFPP provides cash grants for the purchase and distribution of food to low-income individuals.
Unfortunately, for years, the SFPP has been chronically underfunded. In 2006-07, the state allotted $18.75 million for SFPP. Since then, funding has dropped 7.5 percent to $17.4 million. The current budget plan kept funding flat — even though the number of residents eligible for SFPP has increased by 23 percent over that same period.
SFPP is needed now more than ever.
Food insecurity among Pennsylvanians has increased from 10 percent of our population to 14.2 percent.
An estimated 2 million people in Pennsylvania — one in seven — turn to food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves.
Food costs have increased 24 percent over the last decade and continue to rise. Grocery store prices are expected to go up by as much as 2.5 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s on top of the 1.2 percent increase in 2015. Families and food banks alike are feeling the pinch of these higher costs.
The governor’s current budget would increase the SFPP line item by $2 million. $1 million of that increase will go to PASS. It’s a start, but it’s not enough.
There is enormous pressure on food assistance providers.
As legislators get busy in May and June to craft the 2016-17 budget, they need to remember that hunger is an issue that transcends political boundaries. There isn’t a single community in Pennsylvania that isn’t affected.
And if we want to truly help all those in need, then the final spending plan should include $21 million for SFPP and $5 million for PASS.
This is a guest post from Sheila Christopher, Executive Director of Hunger-Free PA. It was originally posted at their blog here.