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Panel explores intersection of hunger and workforce development

Vanessa Philbert introduced attendees at PWDA’s newly launched PA@Work webinar series last month to an expression many had never heard before – “la brega.” A Spanish term used frequently by Puerto Ricans according to Philbert, a “brega” means a situation you cannot control so you hustle to get around it.

The quarterly series, hosted by Pennsylvania Workforce Development Executive Director Carrie Anne Amann, focuses on the intersection of workforce development and the social determinants of health.

The United States Centers for Disease Control defines social determinants of health as “life-enhancing resources, such as food supply, housing, economic and social relationships, transportation, education, and health care, whose distribution across populations effectively determines length and quality of life.” These typically include access to care, food, insurance coverage, income, housing, and transportation.

The topic of the March 18 panel was food insecurity, a pressing topic as the nation heads into the 12th full month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Philbert, who is Latina, said that for her, the phrase “la brega” shows how much we have normalized living in a struggle. She is currently the president and CEO of the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County, but recounted that she started her journey at the county’s largest poverty-fighting organization as a client.

Her fellow panelist, Dan Jurman, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Advocacy and Reform, agreed with Philbert and said that he would like to see the term “self-sufficiency” banned from the English language.

“We are all interconnected; in fact, we thrive on connections,” Jurman said. “But somehow poor people are supposed to be more individually rugged than the rest of us.

Jurman said that most of us have what he calls “bonding capital” – people who help us survive. But he said that many need more “bridging capital,” people who help us bridge from one place to someplace else.

“One good job makes all the difference for most families – you have more money, more time, and more safety from emergencies,” Jurman said, adding that when workforce development works, we all succeed.  

Philbert agreed, but said that in most cases, we put too much of the onus on employees, expecting them to have the hard and soft skills they need. She said her agency received 800 applications for rental assistance in first 18 days of the program and that 80% of the applicants were Black single mothers making less than $20,000 a year.

“This is their annual income,” she said. “Something is not right. How can we expect them NOT to need our help?”

The third panelist was Jane Clements-Smith, the executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, which represents the nine Feeding America food banks in the Commonwealth. She spoke of the dramatic increase in the number of people seeking food assistance during the pandemic, when one in 20 Pennsylvanian suddenly found themselves food insecure. She said that 1.9 Pennsylvanians filed for unemployment compensation within six weeks  of the outbreak in March 2020 and that many did not even know they  could use food bank services. She said that statewide, her members saw a 60% increase in need from the prior year.

Clements-Smith said her organization advocates for sound policies on food programs and is focused on bringing healthier food into the system, including the nation’s first donated milk program and an innovative new cooperative among 26-food banks that buys fresh produce at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market and distributes its from Virginia to New England.

For Clements-Smith, it is ridiculous to think that any Pennsylvanian is hungry. “We have 53,000 farms in this state,” she said, adding that she spends a great deal of her time strengthening the relationship between the agricultural sector and the charitable food network.

Jurman said that the stigma faced by people in need is in the wrong place. “We should be ashamed of our system,” he said. “We talk about dignity of work, but there is some work that does not have the dignity of a living wage. We have to demand that we think differently, beyond the crisis.”

Amann urged attendees to continue the conversation about the intersection between hunger and workforce development and called for the continual strengthening of the bridges between these two “ecosystems.” She invited the audience to virtually attend the next webinar on Thursday, May 26 on childcare, featuring Gene Barr, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Kari King, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, and Janet Ward, Executive Director of the Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board.

Find more here on PA@Work, register for the events, and tap into the Learning Series resource page to rewatch the series and find materials that were highlighted! 

PA Workforce Development Association