The number of county residents receiving food assistance through Lebanon County Christian Ministries dropped during the past year due to an increase in federal funding disbursed during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, now that the additional funding is gone, LCCM believes the number of people seeking their services will rise toward pre-pandemic levels. LCCM is responsible for administering the various countywide food assistance programs.

LCCM executive director Bryan Smith said 366,181 pounds of food were distributed in the past year across all of the organization’s programs, of which 130,624 pounds of food went to 925 households through their Food Pantry program. By comparison, LCCM assisted 1,721 families via the pantry in 2019, according to Smith.

LCCM also administers The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), a federal initiative that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing emergency food assistance at no cost.

LCCM provided aid last year to 4,254 households, with the average of 354 households served on a monthly basis. The average number of people assisted monthly totaled 287 individuals.

In the year prior to COVID, the TEFAP program averaged 606 county residents receiving monthly assistance, said Smith, who also noted that was about a 50 percent drop from one year to the next. He also explained that there is some duplication in the numbers since individuals can receive assistance through more than one LCCM-administered program.

“Everybody believes the governmental funding and support was significant, right?” said Smith. “So you saw the SNAP benefits were increased to max capacity, which certainly has a positive (effect) where it has driven people, from a shopping perspective, to the grocery stores since there was money there to purchase food.”

While the federal bump in assistance during the pandemic had a short-term impact, Smith believes over the long term that planning is necessary to address the issue moving forward.

“Although that benefit has gone away, there’s been an increase in SNAP of 25 percent in the base in October, which is going to be long term,” said Smith. “But when you look at max benefits to what the individuals are now going to get, the question that has to be asked is, ‘So funding helped reduce the demand in the pantries, but what’s the long-term game plan?'”

Although he did not have numbers for the prior month, Smith said his agency has “seen an uptick in the number of people” his organization assisted during October.

“While money was a short-term answer, it’s not the long-term answer,” he said. “Long term is really along the lines of meeting programs for sustainability.”

Smith said the LCCM board has been discussing long-term needs, conducting research of other food assistance programs across the nation and working on a strategic plan the agency hopes to release in the near future that will address, in part, long-term sustainability.

“We believe it is going to be a relationship focus,” he explained. “Working with people with broken relationships — and by broken I don’t mean like a husband and wife who are mad at each other. I am talking about life-walk relationships — parents, previous trauma, drug addiction — all of those social determinants of health. When those social determinants of health are lost, people suffer.”

Looking to the future, there are a number of factors that could impact how many people the agency assists over the coming years. Although unemployment is one factor, there are other considerations that could impact that figure. (As of July 2021, the county’s unemployment rate was 6 percent, according to the Trading Economics website.)

“I know pre-COVID that we had a 4 percent unemployment rate,” said Smith. “Even with a 4 percent unemployment rate, 10 percent of our community was listed as living in poverty based on the financial guidelines of the federal government. But 27 percent of our population was in the ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained but Employed) category, which is determined by the United Way.”

Another dynamic is time spent on the job, according to Smith.

“While people are now receiving $18 and $19 an hour to work at a convenience store or at a warehouse, what we are not taking into consideration is how many hours are they paying folks to work,” Smith said. “So if I am working a job that pays $20 an hour but I am only working 20 hours a week, it is the equivalent of working 40 hours a week at $10 an hour and without any benefits.”

Smith said chasing a solution is like a big circle when there are a multitude of interconnected factors that must be taken into consideration.

“So what we need are jobs that are full time with benefits, 40 hours a week, (and at) a good wage,” said Smith. “And then that leads into having the workforce to do it, which leads into the transportation system being there to support it. That leads into housing, which leads into the housing market.”

There can be a major disconnect, however, between someone earning a decent wage but not receiving benefits like healthcare.

“Even though there are a lot of jobs out there, do those jobs pay enough to make it a livable wage or does it put somebody on the benefits cliff where they are making money but losing governmental assistance benefits and actually taking their family backward?” asked Smith. “It’s a very complicated scenario to try to address.”

LCCM has a time-proven method, however, to ensure it is fulfilling its mission.

“At LCCM, we just kind of look at the little picture right now and say, ‘Whatever has happened in your life that has given you an insecurity in food, or clothing, or shelter, let us try to be a guiding light through that process. If we can put food on your table, if we can help keep you clothed, and if you end up being homeless, let us know how we can help you,'” said Smith.

Anyone in need can schedule an appointment with an LCCM staff member who will provide guidance and assistance either through their agency or by making a referral to another service organization that can help.

LCCM can be reached by filling out the online information form on the website, by calling their offices at 717-272-4400, or by sending an email to them at to schedule an appointment.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...