The origin of (FAM) was as simple as it was staggering: immediate need. At the national level, one in five Americans face food insecurity every day. Across the state, 1.9 million Pennsylvanians—including 43 percent of older adults—are food insecure. And nearly 160,000 residents of Allegheny County utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

The Bellevue Farmers Market has a long history of offering SNAP access and serving as a food insecurity harbor for its neighbors.

“We want to make sure that everyone in our community has access to locally-grown food so that everyone can experience the difference better nutrition can make,” says Bryan Davidson, who manages the market. “Helping to fight food insecurity is a passion of mine, and that’s shared by the entire Farmers Market Committee.”

Davidson grew up in the South Hills before moving first to Brighton Heights and then settling in Avalon. A high school English teacher with a wide-open Summer schedule, he wanted to get more involved in the community and started at the market as a volunteer. Like so many involved, his role has grown right alongside the people this kind of welcoming environments is designed to serve.

“One of my favorite things about the region is how the different communities rally around each other,” he says. “You can make a such a big impact just by donating some of your time—and you never know where that will lead.”

Today, FAM is a rising resource that helps support local communities by partnering with farmers markets in Southwestern Pennsylvania to double the benefits of food assistance programs like SNAP.

In 2020, it began as the Feeding Neighbors Program (FNP).

“Every Wednesday, all Summer long into October, we could literally see and often experienced the great work Bryan and his team were doing right across the street— the market is really a wonderful event with dogs and kids running around and live music playing,” says Mallory S. Ciuksza, MD, FACP, FAM Chair. “Through working with the Farmers Market, we knew that there were many families in our own neighborhood—a handful of families on our block alone—who would struggle to put food on the table in the wake of the pandemic. FNP was born out of a desire to continue the mission of addressing this need in our backyard.”

Ciuksza, an internist at St. Clair Health who specializes in internal medicine and primary care, was eager to dig in. In tandem with her husband, Albert Ciuksza, Jr., a serial entrepreneur who serves as Vice President of consulting firm Solutions 21 and Vice Chair of FAM, and the help of countless others from the surrounding area, they started preparing and delivering meals in the kitchen of a local Bellevue church.

“Albert has this unique ability to see the solution to every challenge—and then do the work to find the way through in a real, logistical, tangible way. I’ve long kidded him that I fix people and he fixes companies,” Mallory says. “As our awareness increased about the proximity of food insecurity in our own backyard, I couldn’t help but think of one of Fred Rogers’ favorite sayings—the idea hat when bad things happen, you look for the helpers.”

Throughout 2020, a little bit of help started cooking up a big difference in their corner of the city. The Feeding Neighbors Program delivered as results took root. 30,000 meals went out to more than 300 families in need within an eight-mile radius. More than $100,000 was raised by individuals, foundations, and in-kind contributions. And more than 250 volunteers contributed every step of the way.

“This was a big problem worth serving— and it was abundantly clear that there was a lot more we could do because of what we learned throughout the process—starting with how many people were willing to roll up their sleeves and help the community,” Mallory says. “Our mindset shifted not just toward building something bigger, but something better, where we could create a community nexus through the market model and be part of a solution as sustainable as the work these multigenerational farmers were doing to help create more farm-to-table access.”

Support from The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation helped drive a test run of their market match program for all community assistance benefit programs— FAM was officially piloted as a repeatable model to validate the concept, mostly through a successful crowdfunding effort, in 2021. Additional support was gained from local business leaders throughout the year. And in 2022, the Bellevue Farmers Market won a federal Community Development Block Grant.

“Watching the success of this program in transitioning from the idea that really started with simply helping to feed our neighbors become a more sustainable match across the board was incredible,” says Davidson. “The work FAM is doing absolutely amplifies the Farmers Market’s own goals—it’s one of the best things we provide.”

Two additional forces supply ample sustenance for the Ciukszas going forward.

The first: Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that does not have a statewide double-match program for SNAP benefits. For Albert, that fact drives home the all-important element of increasing food insecurity awareness.

“I was a ‘WIC kid’ growing up,” he says— referring to the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in low-income families. “In wanting to become a sustainable resource for the region, I know that it can feel bad needing to get help. But getting access to that help shouldn’t have to. We’re building something that doesn’t exchange dignity for that access.”

In fact, with FAM, there’s no special token or card needed. You simply shop with eligible vendors at the market and get a receipt for your items. A volunteer brings the items to you and vendors are reimbursed for the total amount of eligible items purchased.

For Mallory, the second force bears communal fruit as nature and nurture unite.

“One of the reasons I love what I do is that St. Clair is so focused on what it means to be a good neighbor—and one of our greatest privileges is stepping up to meet the needs of the communities we serve,” she says. “A lot of my work is preventative care and focused on long-term patient health. But in a space like this, you can see the benefit in real time—and then it also adds up over time. That’s rare.”

On Mallory’s side, teaching others about the undisputedly connected truths is as organic as it gets.

“Education plays a crucial role in every aspect of your health care at St. Clair—and this was exactly that kind of opportunity,” she says.

“We know that food incentives increase the consumption of more nutritious foods. The vast majority of match program participants report that their family’s health improves. And vendors and farmers reap the benefits, too, because for every $100 spent, $62 stays in the local economy and $99 remains in the state.”

Ciuksza, the Internist, is slated to become the Assistant Director of St. Clair Health’s Residency Program while also serving as Clerkship Director between St. Clair and Duquesne University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“The spirit of continuous learning is embedded in my work in the office and the nonprofit space,” she says. “It’s extremely meaningful to know that what I do extends far beyond the walls of our healthcare system.”

And that ever-resourceful footprint is only expanding.

In conjunction with educating her patients about the role nutrition plays in their long-term health, Dr. Ciuksza educated herself about the levels of food insecurity among the residents of the South Hills.

“What I’ve truly learned is that it’s not a linear thing and it’s not even necessarily a long-term thing, but you never know when your neighbor might be in need,” she says. “Expert care from people who care means really listening to what your patients are saying, and understanding that it’s imperative to meet them where they are—especially for those who can’t travel to take advantage of a program like FAM.”

In order to do just that, Dr. Ciuksza sought the advice of G. Alan Yeasted, MD, SVP & Chief Medical Officer Emeritus at St. Clair Health.

“He’s been a champion for me across the board, and I’m so grateful for his support,” she says. “Alan made the connection with St. Clair’s Community Outreach team and together we were able to get that ball rolling.”

St. Clair Health’s most recent Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) displayed an uptick in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease for residents of the South Hills.

“Enhancing nutrition through increased access to healthy fruits and vegetables can help with so many of the health care challenges our communities face every day,” says Lindsay M. Meucci, VP, Marketing, Communications & Advocacy at St. Clair Health. “It’s an absolute honor to be able to use our Community Outreach resources for the greater good. The wonderful efforts of Dr. Ciuksza and the FAM team in Bellevue made bringing the program to Bethel Park a no-brainer.”

Knowing that providing greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables can help improve people’s lives creates an impact that Lindsey Sibert, who coordinates the Bethel Park Farmers Market, is already seeing.

“The program started here in June and it’s already been such a tremendous benefit for everyone involved. Our vendors get to meet new customers, which positively impacts the local economy,” she says. “And people who might not otherwise be able to have access to this wonderful assortment of fresh, nutritious food do now. St. Clair’s involvement has been nothing short of extraordinary—with FAM we matched over $10,000 in August alone.”

Mallory Strickland CiukszaMALLORY S. CIUKSZA, MD, FACP

Dr. Ciuksza specializes in internal medicine and primary care. She is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Ciuksza earned her medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. She completed her residency at Allegheny General Hospital and was named a 40 Under 40 Honoree by Pittsburgh Magazine in 2022. She practices with St. Clair Medical Group Internal Medicine. To contact Dr. Ciuksza, please call 412.942.8500.