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Face to face with the ‘meal gap’

by LIZ ALLEN, Staff Writer


“Map the Meal Gap,” published by Feeding America in May and using 2021 statistics, reported that in Erie County, 12 percent of adults and 16 percent of children are “food insecure.”


The interactive feature for “Map the Meal Gap” at feedingamerica.org shows that those percentages add up to 31,820 people in Erie County live with food insecurity, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life.”


Feeding America’s report calls to mind the wise words of the late Sister Mary Miller, Emmaus Director until her death on May 14, 2023, from her list of “10 Things” she learned during 42 years as the ministry's leader. Number eight jumps out: “A soup kitchen should not exist in this country of plenty.”


To see how the “meal gap” hits and harms real people, visits to Emmaus Soup Kitchen, Emmaus Food Pantry, and Emmaus Grove are in order, followed by an examination of social justice policies that could narrow or eliminate the meal gap.


Outside the food pantry, you might meet the soft-spoken 23-year-old who lives in a tent at a location he doesn’t want to disclose. He is familiar with Emmaus Soup Kitchen but didn’t know about the food pantry until he walked by on a recent Monday morning and got some food.


Famished, he is eating dry Cinnamon Sugar Krispies from a cereal box in one hand and washing it down with a half-gallon of milk in his other hand. He asks politely for a single plastic spoon so he can “find a way to eat” peanut butter and jelly from the jar he got at the pantry.


When he notices an older woman putting food pantry items into her vehicle, he offers her his cartoon of eggs. He has no kitchen or utensils to cook them.


The woman has three adult daughters who are vegetarians and is grateful for the fresh produce that comes from Emmaus Grove as well as the eggs. Following surgery in June that removed two gastrointestinal stromal tumors, she knows it is imperative for her to eat healthy.


“It sounds like I was having a pepperoni ball” inside her stomach, she said. In reality, at age 67, her stomach was so distended that she looked pregnant, the mother of seven recalled.


After she ended up in the ER and had to be transferred to Pittsburgh for surgery, her Erie doctor apologized. The apology doesn’t make up for the agony she experienced in being cut open from her ribs to her navel to excise the tumors, which were found four years after a “pea-sized” growth was detected in her stomach.


“I’ve always been a fresh, healthy eater,” she said. “But to eat healthy is expensive.”


Rosemary Gantz is delighted that thanks to generous donors and dedicated volunteers, Emmaus Grove has a 10-year track record for providing fresh produce, grown without chemicals, to Emmaus Food Pantry and for use at the soup kitchen. Rosemary worked with Eileen DiPlacido and Sister Mary Miller to start the garden. Although Rosemary no longer lives in Erie, the garden volunteers follow the same routine set in place at the start: documenting the amount of food harvested every week, by the pound, then tallying the total at season’s end.


The final seasonal entry recorded on Oct. 25, 2022, shows that the garden yielded 16.5 pounds of green tomatoes that week.


But when Rosemary thinks about Emmaus Grove, she zeroes in on one green tomato, requested by a man who stopped by the garden at day’s end, after the gate was closed and secured.


“Would you mind if I have a green tomato?” he asked. “You can’t buy a green tomato,” he said, and he wanted to pick one for a friend who had grown up cooking with green tomatoes.

They picked several. They weighed them. He started crying.


Today, there is recognition that familiar, fresh foods are important to different cultures. David Godoy is the nutrition coordinator for the state’s Healthy Pantry Initiative at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest Pennsylvania. He works with local food pantries like Emmaus's and also directly with the public, providing recipe cards and tasting event, to subtly encourage people to select healthy foods.


Food doesn’t just recharge your body. When food improves health, it can be a healing process, he said. And as Rosemary likes to say: “It takes souls to seed the garden.”


It also takes advocates to tackle systemic issues that contribute to food insecurity.


Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro convened a new Food Policy Council to take on that task.


The council includes representatives from nine state agencies and a 16-member advisory panel “to work collaboratively to improve food and nutrition security, public health, environmental sustainability, local food systems and to reduce food waste,” according to a state news release.


“Access to food is a basic human right,” said State Agricultural Secretary Russell Redding. “And ensuring that everyone in Pennsylvania has equitable access to healthy, nutritious food is a noble mission that faces challenging obstacles,” he said.


Here’s hoping that in “this country of plenty,” as Sister Mary put it, Pennsylvania, including our northwestern corner of the commonwealth, we will find ways to reduce not only the “meal gap” but the other gaps in basic needs that people--such as the guests who come to Emmaus--live with every day.



Photos:

--David Godoy is the nutrition coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Healthy Pantry Initiative at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest Pennsylvania, where Karen Seggi is the director.

--Volunteers at Emmaus Grove record their weekly harvest by the pound in a notebook.


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