Just Harvest employs a multi-faceted strategy to reduce poverty and hunger in Southwestern PA.
“We combine an approach that helps connect people to public safety nets…while at the same time pressuring the government to do a better job providing that net,” said Ken Regal, executive director of the anti-poverty nonprofit.
“There’s a big public debate about how to get poor people to buy better food,” he said. They “have a lot of barriers to good food, and reducing the barriers is the better solution.”
So reduce barriers is just what the organization does. In the last year Just Harvest has helped about 1,000 individuals and families through the difficult process of applying for food stamps. “The system is so complex and consumer-unfriendly…part of our mission is to navigate people through [it] so they get the benefits they’re entitled to,” said Regal.
Just Harvest also helped approximately 2,400 people file tax returns last year, bringing millions of dollars back to local Pennsylvanians in need. Just Harvest also recently started a program called Fresh Access which has improved the nutritional options available to recipients of food stamps while increasing investment in the local economy.
Fresh Access allows people to use credit, debit, and EBT cards to shop at local farmers’ markets. In less than a year since its inception, the program has directed about $17,000 of food stamp money to local farmers, Regal said. However, debit and credit card users also love having a way to transferring funds from a card into chips usable at a farmer’s stand. Indeed, the majority of Fresh Access users are credit and debit card holders, whose use of the system brings an additional amount of about $25,000 in sales to local farmers.
In addition to helping those most vulnerable to hunger access the services available to them, Just Harvest focuses on education and advocacy aimed at the general public. We have “a major focus on policy advocacy and what we broadly describe as community education, which is about helping people understand and destigmatizing [poverty and hunger],” said Regal. The Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership helps provides a venue for advocacy as well a platform for connections with other liked-minded, organizations servicing the same clients.
Regal says GPNP helps them better address the needs of their clients better by bringing together organizations who work with the same individuals but in different aspects of their lives.
“Being engaged in the network…helps us have a broader context for understanding the kinds of problems our clients face,” said Regal.
“When an organization like ours has a conversation with an organization that’s working on mental health, disability or children’s issues we’re not talking about the same line items in the state budget but we’re talking about people with overlapping needs,” he said.
“If we know what others are doing…we’re better informed, we’re better able to speak about and defend the needs of our folks.”