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Take Note: Mel Curtis on the Centre County YMCA’s mission to end hunger and how COVID-19 worsened food insecurities

Mel Curtis
Maddie Miller
/
WPSU
Mel Curtis has been leading the Centre County YMCA's anti-hunger program since 2004.

Mel Curtis is the Anti-Hunger Program Director at the Moshannon Valley YMCA. The initiatives he oversees include a Weekend Food Backpack program and a Free Summer Lunch Program. Both initiatives focus on alleviating food insecurities for school age children across Centre County. The Anti-Hunger Program also organizes food distributions open to the public throughout the county. Mel Curtis, welcome to Take Note.

Mel Curtis

Thank you very much.

Maddie Miller

So first, you’re the “Anti-Hunger” Program Director. You often hear the term “food insecurity.” What’s the difference?

Mel Curtis

Well, food insecurity is something that many families today are facing. Anyone can become food insecure in a matter of moments. Loss of job, a major repair on your vehicle, sickness or anything can drive a person into food insecurity. So, what we’re seeing now is through COVID where a lot of people were two-income families that potentially now could be one. There’s a decrease in income, so they’ve got to look at certain things to cut, and usually food’s one of the first things to get cut. A lot of two-income families now are also, too, just one-income because one of the parents chose to stay home to raise their children. So, there’s many factors to food insecurity.

Maddie Miller

And how big of an issue is food insecurity in Centre County?

Mel Curtis

In Centre County, it’s much bigger than what people realize. When you look at Centre County, it’s a very large county. One of the largest in the state. And it spreads to the mountains, to the valleys and all over. A lot of times when people talk about Centre County, they’re thinking about State College. But when you get out into the Bald Eagle Valley, the Penns Valley area, up into Philipsburg, most of those people are driving into State College to work. So, it’s a much more rural area. So, food insecurities are high in Centre County.

Maddie Miller

Are we talking food budgets stretched tight for these families or people going without meals?

Mel Curtis

Well, actually both. A lot of times we see people constantly, we’re out doing 21 to 23 food distributions every month all over the county. We hear stories from parents. A lot of times moms, if there’s not enough food in the house, the moms will feed the children and whatever’s left over then she will eat. A lot of people, especially seniors, are struggling to get food. Then you throw into the mix inflation, what it’s done to the cost of food. So, there’s a lot of factors that are happening right now that are driving food insecurity.

Maddie Miller

You helped launch the Weekend Food Backpack Program in 2004, which gives K-12 students a backpack full of food each Friday to eat throughout the weekend, when they won’t have school lunches. When did the need for anti-hunger programs become apparent to you?

Mel Curtis

When we started the Summer Lunch Program first, we started to hear what kids were saying. And people would say, you know, a lot of these kids are going home on weekends, and they don’t have food. We went into the schools, and we started talking to the administrators, the principals. When I go into a school, I like to talk to cafeteria workers and janitors, because kids are a little bit more at ease, so they’ll talk to them and let them know what’s going on. But we heard stories. Friday and Mondays were big absent days. Monday was the busiest day at the nursing office due to headaches, stomachaches and things like that. Teachers were starting to bring crackers in, keep them in their desk to give kids food to get through to lunchtime. So, we knew then there was an issue. We just jumped on it. It’s a mission of the YMCA of Centre County to take care of this and we’ve put a lot of effort into this.

YMCA anti hunger volunteers
Mel Curtis
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Volunteers for the YMCA's Anti-Hunger Program organizing groceries for a food distribution. The program has more than 300 volunteers.

Maddie Miller

The programs that you direct are very active in the summer. In 2015, you helped start the Free Summer Lunch Program, which gives K-12 students a box with a week worth of lunches. Did you see a need for providing meals when school was not in session?

Mel Curtis

Yeah, definitely. If you look…I’m not gonna throw out a county statistic, but I’ll throw a nationwide statistic at you. If you look at the free and reduced lunch program that’s run by the schools, each year, the last day of school, there’s millions of kids that no longer have that guaranteed meal the next day. So, a lot of these kids now are seeking where their next meal is coming from. Things like that have a major impact. During COVID, what we saw was when they were out of school, schools, some school districts were giving out food. But there’s a lot of kids who live in pocketed areas all over the county that don’t have the transportation to get to the school site to get the foods. So, it’s a massive program for the different areas that we’re doing. And I honestly believe we’re making a pretty good dent into the system right now.

Maddie Miller

What kind of an impact have you seen these programs have on families?

Mel Curtis

It’s interesting because I can go back to March 15th of 2020 when it all started. Day one when the schools closed down, we were out, we were feeding kids at 50 sites across the county. To see the looks on parents' faces and on kids' faces, we’ve seen things that basically are burned into our brains. It’s a vision we will have for life. On the other side of that is the food distributions, you know, what we’ve seen. The impact of it, I think, has been very strong. I really do. I think that we’ve made a difference in a lot of communities. I wish we could reach more people. One of the hardest things that we have is marketing a product. And what I mean by that is, we need to find out where these people are because, again, being very rural you have a lot of pocketed areas in these different communities that you can’t reach these people. The other side to it too is, we’re a very proud county. No one likes to think that they can’t take care of their family. So, they don’t want to be seen sitting in a food line in their car waiting to get food. The food distributions we’re doing now, like in Philipsburg, we do them every two weeks. They’re scheduled to start at 10:00. We have people sitting in their cars waiting as early as 5:30 in the morning to get food. So, it’s a big issue, it really is, much more than what people want to understand.

Maddie Miller

Does any particular story stand out to you of a family in need, and the difference the program has made?

Mel Curtis

Well, actually there’s a lot. I’m going to go back to the beginning where we had a mother with three children. She was divorced, so she was raising children on her own. She was working and the grandparents played a very large role in the kids’ life. She was very embarrassed to come forward and ask for food, that she needed help. So, we got through that level, like, “Look, this isn’t embarrassing, everyone’s facing this. You’re gonna see people that have done very well with their life that have lost their income now, they’re in the same boat as what you are.” She’s working with us now; she’s helping us out. And we’ve seen a lot of that. We’ve seen a lot of people that we’ve helped come back to help others. A lot of times, people will call this a hand-out. Like, you’re entitling these people or whatever. We really aren’t. This is a hand-up. Children are at the mercy of their parents, what their parents are going to do for them. That’s why we take great pride in this, that we’re able to help these children.

Maddie Miller

A study conducted by the Pennsylvania Population Network found that people in non-metro counties are at a higher risk of food insecurity. Is this finding consistent with what you have seen?

Mel Curtis

Sure. And actually, that is a national statistic. There’s more hunger in rural America than there is in urban America. Most of your money put out by the government is going to urban America. Rural America, rural Pennsylvania, rural Centre County if you look, the farms, the amount of farmers that are producing food. Centre County has a tremendous amount of rural area that’s blue-collar workers that aren’t high-paid jobs. For any of them to lose income, it’s a major deal for their family. I think what we’re seeing is, especially in Centre County with the farms, they’re at the mercy of getting that food out to the market and getting to people that are buying it to go into the grocery stores and stuff like that.

Maddie Miller

And how does the lack of public transportation in the more rural parts of the county hinder people’s access to food?

Mel Curtis

Well, transportation is a large issue with food insecurity. Centre County does a van service, which is fantastic. They do a great job with it. But, a lot of areas, you can’t like…If you take a company like CATA, they really couldn’t take buses into some of these areas to pick these people up, because they are very pocketed. I mean, you get on some of these backroads, it’s like, “Where am I?” I’ve lived in Centre County all my life; I’ve seen parts of Centre County now through COVID that I didn’t even know existed. I think that the transportation side to it is, it’s not so much that people that potentially are lower income, like if you have a family who lives in a pocketed area of the county, the main breadwinner takes the vehicle to work, the rest of the family doesn’t have transportation. And that makes it very, very difficult. Now you take that one step further, and you look at it as what we call “food deserts.” A food desert is an area where a family doesn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, you know, high nutrition foods. Like Snow Shoe is a perfect example. Snow Shoe area had a market and it caught on fire and it closed. So now for those people to go to the grocery store, they either travel to State College or to Bellefonte. So therefore, what happens is, that is now, that’s a food desert because these people can’t get to it. So, the transportation’s also a big issue, especially with the seniors. A lot of them don’t have a vehicle or a lot of them really aren’t comfortable driving distances to get food, things like that. So, transportation, yes, is a very large issue.

Maddie Miller

And what have you done to combat these transportation hurdles?

Mel Curtis

We do home deliveries. We started this during COVID, if a family does not have access to a vehicle or a family member to get them to a distribution. We deliver every Thursday and Friday to homes throughout Centre County. And this is all done by volunteers, please understand that. The whole program is volunteers. So, that’s one way that we’ve combated. The other way is we try to take food distributions into areas where some people, it’s gonna be a little bit easier for them to get to that area than to a larger area.

Maddie Miller

Recently food costs have really gone up. Has that resulted in a higher turnout at your food drives?

Mel Curtis

To an extent, yes. One of the things I think that people really don’t understand, we can go to a distribution, and we register people. It’s not people just following us around collecting food as a hobby-type thing. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of the working class showing up at these food distributions. Now, why? Cost of gas, cost of food, because most of them in different areas are traveling to go to work. So, the money that you’re bringing home now is going out much faster than it was before. The very low-income people that, you know, a lot of people like to look at it from a poverty level, they are receiving food stamps. We’re not seeing as many of those as we are the working class.

Maddie Miller

That’s interesting. Have inflation and rising food costs affected operations on your end? And is there enough food for everyone who shows up?

Mel Curtis

Yes, inflation has taken a toll on us. Because, I mean, we have a fleet of vehicles that are out constantly. So, gas prices have skyrocketed, as we well know. And, you know, we’re hearing numbers that it’s gonna keep climbing through the summer, which are pretty ridiculous. The cost of food, like the Backpack Program, we fund that totally on donations. That costs us $150,000-165,000 a year. We will well surpass that this year. Now, it’s not only inflation, it’s getting the food is really the hard part. The food chain, per se, is totally upside-down. If you go to a grocery store and you look at different shelves, they’re empty. They can’t get the products. You’re seeing a great case now with baby formula. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen as many recalls on food that we have this year. The one that jumps out at me right off the bat is Jif peanut butter. There’s none anywhere because it’s a national recall on it. There’s a lot of products that come out every day that they’re recalling. So, the food chain has made it very difficult in a lot of different ways.

Maddie Miller

In March, Congress failed to pass a bill to cover child nutrition waivers that they had funded in the past. Will this affect your work and the families you usually supply with food?

Mel Curtis

Yes. Big yes. I was very disappointed that they did not pass this. Basically, we just found this out, as you said, that they…We’re getting ready to start the Summer Lunch Program and for the past two years, we’ve been able to go anywhere and feed any child because of the waivers. Now we’re going back to the 2019 time period where we have to go in and qualify an area. Well, if we go to a school and ask them for their free reduced lunch statistics, they don’t have them because they’ve fed every child and there was no cost. So, it’s made it very difficult for us. But some of the places that we’ve been to constantly over the last two years, we’ve gone into those areas and fed those kids, we will not be able to go back into those areas. Because that food that we would give those children is not reimbursable now. So, we’re gonna have to raise funds ourselves to go back into some of these areas to feed kids.

Maddie Miller

I see. So, do you think there’s a chance that you won’t be able to reach as many kids as you previously were able to?

Mel Curtis

It’s very apparent. I want to be careful how I say this. It’s very apparent that a lot of kids across the state that were fed last year will not be fed this year. They will have to go to an area, somehow get transportation to go to an area, to be fed. From our standpoint, from the YMCA of Centre County, we’re pulling out everything possible to go back into every area we’ve been in the past. Because you don’t feed a child and then walk away from that child. So, our goal is to raise the funding, be able to pay for our cost in it, you know, our labor cost. We have cooks, we prepare all our own foods. We have two central kitchens in Centre County where we prepare foods. Then we have that staff, we have to purchase the food. So, I mean, now we’re much like a restaurant, okay? Except, you know, people aren’t paying us, we get reimbursed through the federal government.

Maddie Miller

If you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Mel Curtis, the Anti-Hunger Program Director at the Moshannon Valley YMCA, about the impact of food insecurity in Centre County and the YMCA’s efforts to supply food to those in need.

So, the Pennsylvania Population Network study that I mentioned earlier also found that since 2016, the number of senior citizens in Pennsylvania with food insecurities has increased each year since 2016. Is this something that you’ve noticed?

Mel Curtis

Yes. The food distributions that we go out…We track age, when we go in, we’ll get family sizes. So, we’ll go 0-17, 18-59 and 60-plus. The 60-plus market has been taking off. A lot of these seniors didn’t get a bump in their retirements, Social Security and things like that. So, they still have a limited income on what they can spend. To a lot of grandmas and grandpas, if they have one or two cans in their kitchen cupboard, they don’t worry about food. Which is very strange. They’re more worried about their grandkids or something like that. The senior population right now is struggling in a lot of different areas. And you have to go back to the thing too of inflation. If they have cars, the cost of gas. Everything that they have to face is expensive. Medical. I think the senior population, I think that will continue to grow because I also believe the total statistics for the number of seniors in Pennsylvania’s growing. So that’s gonna be a continuous problem.

Maddie Miller

So, when you say they worry about their grandkids, are you finding that the seniors you serve are responsible for feeding other family members, such as their grandchildren?

Mel Curtis

We have seen, throughout COVID, and a couple years prior to COVID, we’re seeing more grandparents raising their grandchildren than we ever had before. Be it, for whatever reason, but they are actually raising these kids now. They are living in their homes, and they are being raised by grandma and grandpa.

Maddie Miller

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are ‘almost twice as likely’ to have food insecurities ‘compared to the general population.’ The YMCA also has a veterans distribution. Have you noticed a heightened need among veterans?

Mel Curtis

Yeah. The veteran population, again, is another area that’s very misunderstood. People have their own beliefs about a lot of different things. Veterans aren’t always accepted, unfortunately, by some portions of the population. Maybe they don’t like war or whatever. So therefore, they don’t pay that much attention to it. A lot of your army bases, your armed forces bases in the United States, when they came out and did that study, it was well over 40-50% of that base was facing food insecurity. I mean, the numbers are absolutely staggering. Now, here you have a young man, young woman, who goes overseas to fight for their country. And they come back, and they’re faced with food insecurity. So, I think, the veterans distribution that we’re doing now, we want to grow that, we want to take that throughout different areas of the county. Because these are people that I feel we owe everything to. Without the veterans, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now having this conversation, the way that I see it and look at it.

Maddie Miller

Penn State did a Food and Housing Needs Survey that found nearly a quarter of students ‘have some trouble securing food daily.’ There is an on-campus food pantry, Lion’s Pantry, but has the YMCA noticed college student food insecurity?

Mel Curtis

Yeah, very much so. Last year, we started a group on campus, it’s a Penn State anti-hunger club. They’re very active. They go out and they do distributions with us, they come in, they help pack backpacks and things like that. We’re trying to make inroads within the students. It’s been a battle, it’s hard. We always wanted to bring the Traveling Table on campus and just give out soup and sandwiches and things like that. But, you know, we’re not permitted. And a lot of that was brought on by COVID. I think now with the new president of Penn State, she has a very strong background in food insecurity when she was at Louisville. And I know that there’s some things before the trustees that will be coming up. I think they’d like to move the pantry into a more central location, which I think would be phenomenal. Because to go back to where it’s at now and carry food back across campus or whatever, I think that’s pretty difficult. I also think, too, that a lot of college students, you have to go back, the price of rent is through the roof. And they’re jamming as many people into an apartment as they can to get downtown or whatever. You know, a lot of them worked before. They worked at bars, they worked at restaurants, things like that. And you’re not seeing that. If you go out into the community now to different restaurants and places, you don’t see the number of college students working there that you used to. And a lot of that was brought on from COVID, but, you know, I think that the times are changing very quickly.

Maddie Miller

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank reported that due to the pandemic, food insecurity increased by 11% in central Pennsylvania. And as you said, during the pandemic, you provided meals at 50 different sites throughout the county. Is this much more than usual, and did you see an increased need?

Mel Curtis

Oh, definitely an increased need. Without a shadow of a doubt. You have to realize one thing: When COVID hit, when they started shutting everything down, it really put people into a panic. I can remember going to the grocery store and seeing seniors sitting in their car, holding a sign up, “Would you go in and pick food up for me?” A lot of people wouldn’t leave their homes. And we tried to combat so many things like that. During the height of COVID when everything was closed down, the schools and everything, we went out to all the local volunteer fire companies and we said, ‘Hey look, we’ve got a great idea. You love serving your community, and this is a great way to do it.’ So, what we did was we got food, we put it on the fire trucks, and we took it out to lower-income areas, we took it to trailer parks and places like that, and we drove in and they hit the lights, the sirens and everything else, and the kids came running out to get food. And it was the neatest thing that I’ve ever seen. Kids love fire trucks, but the volunteers just loved it because it was an opportunity for them to get out.

Hometown Heroes YMCA
Mel Curtis
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Volunteers in front of the YMCA's Hometown Heroes firetruck, which serves as a mobile feeding unit.

Maddie Miller

And when schools pivoted to remote learning, how did you deliver food to school age children and families during the pandemic?

Mel Curtis

We did grab-and-gos. If the schools were doing the meals in their area, we did not double-serve. We weren’t permitted to. We hit a lot of pocketed areas where the schools weren’t serving, or we were in school districts that the school districts weren’t doing the meals. But we did grab-and-go meals. The children didn’t have to be there. Mom or dad could pull up and say, “I’m picking up for five children,” and they would get meals for five kids.

Maddie Miller

So, how did the pandemic impact families with preexisting food insecurities? Was there any story about families with preexisting food insecurities that got hit harder during the pandemic that stand out to you?

Mel Curtis

Many single parent families that struggled for food prior to COVID, they tried to do as much as they could. The parent took on multiple jobs, or whatever which created problems because the children, having children at home. And there’s one case where a guy, his wife left him. He had two children. And he was struggling. He was struggling before COVID. And when COVID hit, he really had nowhere to turn. He ended up living in a car. He basically had lost everything, and that was before all the guidelines came in about protecting people in their homes and stuff. He was living in his car, did everything he possibly could. We found out about him, because, I mean, someone said, “Hey look, this guy is living in his car. He’s got kids. And I know that they’re struggling.” We asked where he was but unfortunately, when you’re in a town, you can only park a vehicle in one spot for so long and then you have to move it. So, it becomes a game of chase. Sort of like Where’s Waldo. We had the description of the car, so we had people looking for it. So, we got a hold of him, and we helped him out with some different sources that helped them out. And he now has come back multiple times not to get food, but to help. He came in one day and gave us a 20-dollar bill and said, “Here. Use this to get something for a family that needs it.” So, I think that there’s probably thousands of cases like that where people struggled beforehand and COVID was sort of like the nail in the coffin for them. But they actually became stronger. I think they handled it better than a lot of people did because they were already at a low point in their life. So therefore, there was only one way to go, and that was up.

Maddie Miller

Now that the pandemic isn’t quite as bad – there are vaccines, and many people are back to work – are you seeing demand lowering?

Mel Curtis

We are not. We put out more food last year than we did at the height of COVID. When I say that, someone’s gonna be sitting there saying well, “How’s that possible?” Inflation. Two-income families potentially now one-income families. The changes of what we’ve gone through have impacted families in so many ways. But I think right now, we are seeing with inflation and everything the way it is right now, we are seeing unbelievable numbers.

Maddie Miller

And do you think need will continue to increase each year?

Mel Curtis

Yes, I do. And I’ll tell you why. When COVID hit in March of 2020, Feeding America came out and made the statement, ‘It’ll take six to seven years until we see pre-COVID hunger numbers again.’ This is, we’re in year three. So, we still have three to four more years of this to go through until we go back to what we saw pre-COVID.

Maddie Miller

How do you have the energy to do all this?

Mel Curtis

Actually, it’s sort of funny. I don’t sleep much. My mind constantly goes. And I think that I grew up knowing that I was responsible to help others.

Maddie Miller

Is your ultimate goal to wipe out all hunger in Centre County? Is that possible?

Mel Curtis

My ultimate goal is, yes, to wipe it all out, because you set goals as high as you possibly can. Because there’s gonna be someone to come after me, that’s gonna take my place. If I didn’t get there, they’ve gotta get there. So, it’s the challenge of it. And I think that, to eliminate anything is very difficult. But yeah, I think we can do it. I really do. Without a shadow of a doubt. You’ve gotta realize, we amassed over 300 volunteers. That’s an army. And the funny thing about it is most of these volunteers are 60-plus. Which is crazy. But those are the people that grew up knowing that they had to give back to the community. This is all about a community wrapping their arms around their community. If we go community by community and people who live in that community wrap their arms around it and help others, before long, guess what? We’ve reached all of Centre County.

Maddie Miller

Mel Curtis, thank you for joining us on Take Note.

Mel Curtis

Thank you.

Maddie Miller

Mel Curtis is the Anti-Hunger Program Director at the Moshannon Valley YMCA. The initiatives he oversees include a Weekend Food Backpack program and a Free Summer Lunch Program. Both initiatives focus on alleviating food insecurities for school age children across Centre County. The Anti-Hunger Program also organizes food distributions open to the public throughout the county.

You can listen to more Take Note interviews on wpsu.org/takenote. I'm WPSU intern Maddie Miller.