Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, has been working at the nonprofit since it began in 1986. In that time, Just Harvest has continuously grown its programs to address the causes of hunger in new ways. It operates with the long-term goal of eradicating hunger through changes to public policy and the food system.
“We see hunger in a broader social and economical and political context. We work to eliminate the root causes of hunger so that we’re not operating out of a place of distributing leftovers,” Regal says. “And that’s not a criticism of the wonderful work that food pantries and soup kitchens and food banks do all over town and all over the country, but without that broader perspective, we’re kind of doomed to collect canned goods forever.”
That focus on policy and institutional change has remained central to Just Harvest’s operations. Though, they’ve branched out in several directions like advocating for workers rights, higher wages, public transportation, and many other causes that all support a movement toward ending hunger.
One of Just Harvest’s biggest annual efforts comes every tax season. It is the area’s leading provider of free income tax preparation services for low income people.
“It turns out that the earned income tax credit is one of the nation’s largest anti-poverty programs,” Regal says.
Almost a hundred volunteers are trained through Just Harvest to help people file their taxes for free. And for some of the people they help, that refund is the biggest lump sum of money they see all year. It can be the difference between putting food on the table or not, paying the rent on time or not, and all kinds of basic everyday needs.
According to Regal, Just Harvest did the income tax returns for 3,000 households last year for families whose median incomes were under $15,000 a year, and who shared a total of over 6 million dollars in tax refunds. In the 15 years since the program began, Just Harvest has filed more than 30,000 tax returns.
Volunteer Coordinator Amanda Fry says that no special experience is necessary to help with tax returns or any of their other programs. All that volunteers need is the desire to help and Just Harvest can enable them do the rest.
“Taxes are very personal, reaching out for help getting access to food or medical assistance, these are all things that are deeply personal and can have a lot of feelings come with that, or resistance, but seeing the way you can still develop that human connection and get through those things is really important in normalizing the nature of helping people,” Fry says.
One of the ways Just Harvest helps people access food is by assisting them through the application process to receive food stamps. The bureaucracy involved in applying for benefits like food stamps is a barrier for a lot of the people who are eligible. Just Harvest helped about 1,300 people navigate that process just this year.
And, Just Harvest wants low income people and those with food stamps to access fresh, nutritious foods. That’s why they run their farmers market Fresh Access and Fresh Corners programs.
The Fresh Access program enables people to use Access Cards at more than 15 farmers markets in the region. Since the food subsidies operate through an electronic system similar to debit cards, vendors at most farmers markets are unable to accept them. Just Harvest’s kiosks at these markets allow people to use their benefits, debit or credit cards to buy tokens that they can then use to purchase fresh foods. And combining the use of food stamps with debit and credit cards means that no one is stigmatized by using the tokens.
“One of the things we insisted on with the entities that were running those farmers markets is that our electronic transaction kiosk was not going to be ‘the poor people’s line,’ it was going to be a way of boosting business for farmers, it was a way of serving the community and a way of providing access to that good food for low income people without judging them,” says Regal.
The Fresh Corners program helps mom and pop corner stores in low income neighborhoods that don’t have supermarkets to carry fresh produce and to market it better, Regal explains. Thanks to Just Harvest and partners like Economic Development South, Produce Marketplace opened last month in the heart of Clairton.
“It’s the first grocery store selling fresh produce in Clairton in a dozen years,” Regal says.
But, among all the progress that Regal has seen over the past 30 years, there are some fundamental things that have remained the same and are holding the movement to end hunger back. Regal explains that we need to start seeing food as a human right.
“There’s a prevailing perspective in american society that when we think about poverty and we think about creating policy to address poverty that we’re constantly trying to come up with some particular way of defining who the ‘deserving poor’ are because those are the people that we’re going to help.”
“We should start fundamentally from a place that says that there’s no such thing as a person who doesn’t deserve enough food to eat,” Regal says. “That’s part of our common humanity.”