The Operation Fresh Express mobile food pantry is a welcome sight when it pulls up to share groceries with struggling people in Westmoreland County. They line up, glad to have the chance to bring home fresh food to get their families through the week.

These people are hungry, and often they’re tired, says Jennifer Miller, director of development at the Westmoreland County Food Bank, which operates the mobile food pantry.

“We’re seeing a lot of people coming to those food distributions in their work uniforms, whether it be a nurse’s uniform or a fast food type of restaurant uniform,” she says. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I really had to rush here, because I just got off work and didn’t want to miss this.'”

The number of people in our region who can’t afford something as critical as food is large and growing. And they’re not the people you might picture.

“A lot of times the people who come to get the food get a bad rap,” Miller says. “People ask, ‘Why aren’t they working?’ The majority of people we’re seeing that are new are the working poor. They’re helping themselves out of poverty, and still need that hand up.”

Tracy Frank, family services coordinator at the Brashear Association, sees the same situation at her food pantry.

“We see a lot of families where at least one member of the household is working. Some of these people are college graduates,” Frank says. “Some of these people have full-time jobs. But with the increase in things like utility costs and housing costs, they see this as necessary.”

The Pittsburgh Foundation documented this worrisome trend as they began work on their 100 Percent Pittsburgh agenda.

“What we’ve come to realize is that the old paradigm of poverty as isolated — a thing just in a few pockets of society — is a completely false paradigm today,” says Pittsburgh Foundation President Maxwell King. “Many, many working people cannot make ends meet.”

As these Pittsburghers struggle to pay for transportation, healthcare, housing and food, King says, “food often ends up at the end of the line. Because they have to pay the rent, have to pay the loan on their car, have to pay for childcare. Towards the end of the month, or the end of the week, they often find that there’s not quite enough money to pay for food.”

Fortunately, your donations can make an enormous difference, especially next week.

On Tuesday, May 1, The Pittsburgh Foundation is organizing a Critical Needs Alert online fundraising event. Their goal is to raise $1 million for 171 Allegheny and Westmoreland County organizations that have food pantries as a primary part of their mission. The event also benefits nonprofits that supply those food pantries.

The Critical Needs event, under the #FeedPGH banner, will be open at the PittsburghGives.org donation portal from 8 a.m. until midnight.

Packing healthy food at Morningside Church of God food pantry. Image courtesy of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Here’s what makes this special: Your donations will be matched with additional funding from a $600,000 leverage pool made up of $350,000 in grants from The Pittsburgh Foundation and $250,000 from its donors.

And funds that you give to these food pantries during the Critical Needs event have more buying power than if you simply bought a bag of groceries at store prices and delivered that to a food pantry.

Dario Donatelli, president of Swissvale Cares, operates a food pantry open to people throughout the 15218 zip code area. He says that recently his organization paid less than $175 for 2,800 pounds of food by purchasing through the Pittsburgh Food Bank.

“When you’re buying a can of soup at retail for $1.50,” he says, it’s very much appreciated if you choose to donate it to a food pantry. But if you donate that money instead, food pantries like Swissvale Cares can use it through the Pittsburgh Food Bank.

Instead of a single can of soup, he says, “with that $1.50, I might be able to buy 10 cans.”

Many food pantries also help with the basic household goods that so many of us buy without much thought at the grocery store each week.

“Sometimes we’ll buy laundry detergent, sometimes feminine products, or diapers that we can’t get through the Food Bank,” Donatelli says. “We realize that our clients are in critical need of those items, too. If you send a kid to school and his clothes are dirty, he’s going to get ostracized.”

With at least one-third of our region’s population living at or near the federal poverty line, the Pittsburgh Foundation is hoping events like Tuesday’s Critical Needs giving drive will make a powerful difference. Even small donations, King says, will have an impact.

Donatelli is hopeful about that, and knows that so many residents in his area need that help. Each week he sees elderly residents struggling with the cost of food.

“We take food directly to a senior citizen’s high rise and get them registered,” he says. “We get them in the system, so we can deliver food.”

Jennifer Miller sees the same: Elderly people in our region who have to choose between food and medication because they can’t afford both.

For these vulnerable Pittsburghers, “food programs have been the difference between heating and eating,” she says, “or obtaining their medicine and eating.”

Visit PittsburghGives.org to help out on Tuesday, May 1.