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Hunger for Change: Addressing Food Insecurity in Philadelphia and the Nation at Large

Benjamin Wolf, Contributing Editor

Food insecurity, defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to a lack of money and other resources, affected 10.5%  of American households pre-COVID 19; the lowest in twenty years. In Philadelphia, however, the outlook was a bit bleaker. The number of food insecure Philadelphians grew from 248,046 to 302,685 from 2012-2017; meaning that one-in-five are struggling with hunger. As we look toward 2021, this problem is poised to become even more prevalent with the economic fallout from the pandemic expected to increase the number of food insecure households to roughly 16%.

Despite the growing number of Americans facing food insecurity, only 55% are considered eligible for the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly referred to as food stamps, and only 29% are eligible for any form of Federal food assistance. This is due, in part, to increasingly stringent criteria to be considered eligible put in place by political representatives, a lack of Federal funding, and lack of access to information on SNAP. An estimated 27% of eligible Philadelphians were not registered for SNAP benefits as of 2014.

To fill in the gaps, local food banks and soup kitchens have stepped up to provide food to those in need. Some of these organizations in Philadelphia include Philabundance and St. Peter’s Food Cupboard. The former provides a database of similar social service agencies providing food to Philadelphians. These organizations will accept donations of non-perishable food items. However, because many food pantries do not have the capacity to carry excess canned and dry goods, monetary contributions are preferred.

Cash donations give food pantries the ability to purchase these ingredients and turn them into healthy meals for the communities they serve. Most food pantries in Philadelphia have stated a need for more fresh ingredients such as fruit and vegetables, poultry, and dairy products; all of which are not eligible to be a donation because they are perishable.

Emergency food services like food pantries can not be seen as a permanent solution to the problem of food insecurity; that must come from changes in governmental policy. For example, a study conducted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia mapped out which neighborhoods in the city and its surrounding suburbs had the highest levels of food insecurity in children. They found that children living in food insecure households were more likely to be Black, more likely to be living in areas where poverty was highly prevalent, and less likely to have access to a grocery stores and food pantries. They stated:

“The true challenge of addressing food insecurity is that it is a symptom of larger issues of poverty, racism and systemic inequality. Addressing those issues will remain priorities for the public health community for the foreseeable future, but will require time and political will to meaningfully change.”

Examples of recent policy changes that have proven to be effective include a move by city officials to make breakfast and lunch free to all students in Philadelphia public schools, as well as, a push by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to increase access to affordable and healthy food in low income areas via the city’s “Get Healthy Philly” initiative. Students, who relied on the universal school breakfast and lunch program pre-COVID, can still access meals despite school closures through the School District of Philadelphia’s grab-and-go meal kit initiative. Information on the locations and times of pick up are available here.

There are many systemic factors that lead to food insecurity that must be addressed in order to eradicate hunger in this country. The root cause of food insecurity in the United States is financial. In a country where over 75% of workers are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and 69% of people have less than $1000 in savings, it is not hard to imagine a number of scenarios that could result in someone not being able to afford enough to eat. Because of the financial vulnerability of most Americans, food insecurity has the potential to impact everyone. Although we can support our communities through individual actions, real systemic change will not come without a collective pressuring of our government officials and people in positions of power to address the structural causes of food insecurity.

To learn more about organizations fighting for food justice, the underlying causes of food insecurity, and suggested policy solutions, see the links below.


Information on Food Insecurity:

Policy Information

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Pivedite Team

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