One in 5 Philadelphians suffers from food insecurity - Generocity Philly

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Dec. 13, 2017 12:40 pm

One in 5 Philadelphians suffers from food insecurity

Here's a snapshot of hunger in Philly, Pennsylvania and the U.S. — the discouraging stats, and the organizations trying to change them.

Food insecurity.

(Image via feedingamerica.org)

This story was originally published in the November 2017 issue of One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper. It appears here through a partnership between Generocity and One Step Away.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Introduced in 2006 by the USDA, “food insecurity” attempted to distinguish “hunger,” as defined by Merriam-Webster as a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient, from the inability to consistently access or afford adequate food.

Here’s what food insecurity looks like in Philadelphia and beyond.

Over a million Pennsylvanians are food insecure

According to Feeding America’s 2017 “Map the Meal Gap project, more than 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania suffer from food insecurity.

Annually, the USDA estimates that food insecurity affects 42 million people. This means that one in eight individuals live in households without consistent access to adequate food.

Federal nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which serves 43 million Americans, act as the first line of defense against hunger. But these programs use income to determine eligibility, and not everyone who is food insecure is income-eligible to receive assistance.

Using 2015 data from the USDA, Feeding America estimates that 26 percent of food-insecure individuals earn too much to qualify for most federal nutrition assistance programs, and 20 percent of food-insecure children live in ineligible households.

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Pennsylvania’s food insecurity rate is 13.1 percent. Of the state’s 67 counties, three have a higher overall food insecurity rate: Forrest, Fayette and Philadelphia.

Over 325,000 Philadelphians are food insecure

Pennsylvania’s largest food insecure county is Philadelphia, with a rate of 21 percent or 325,940 people — that means roughly one in five Philadelphians suffer from food insecurity. (Hunger Free America’s 2017 report set that number at 19.3 percent.) This is similar to the city’s poverty rate, 25.8 percent.

Philadelphia ranks 10th on Feeding America’s top 10 hungriest counties, behind:

  • Tarrant (Fort Worth), Texas
  • Wayne (Detroit), Michigan
  • San Diego, California
  • Dallas, Texas
  • Maricopa (Phoenix), Arizona
  • Cook (Chicago), Illinois
  • Harris (Houston), Texas
  • New York, New York
  • Los Angeles, California (ranked first)

In 2005, Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities began Children’s Healthwatch, a network of pediatricians and public health researchers who monitor the health and well-being of children under the age of 4. One of five cities involved, the Philadelphia site is located in St. Christopher’s Hospital in North Philadelphia, and has interviewed more than 10,000 caregivers.

In 2016, Children’s HealthWatch found one in four families reported household food insecurity, with one in eight families reporting food insecurity among children. Its study showed over the past 10 years showed household food insecurity nearly doubled, while child food insecurity has tripled.

The cycle of insecurity: food, energy, housing

HealthWatch’s research shows young children who live in households experiencing food insecurity are more likely to be in poor or fair health; experience problems with cognitive development; and exhibit behavioral and emotional problems.

In addition to lacking food, one in three families reported energy insecurity, or the lack of consistent access to sufficient heating or electricity to ensure healthy and safe conditions in the home. Without energy, families cannot store food in a refrigerator or heat up food in the microwave or on a stove.

Furthermore, Philadelphia HealthWatch studies showed that over one in three families experienced some form of housing insecurity, ranging from living in a crowded home to moving multiple times in one year.

Housing conditions have a strong association with the health and wellbeing of families. Children living in substandard housing face increased exposure to lead and allergens, causing decreased health and unforeseen expenses from doctors’ visits or missed work and school.

What’s being done about it?

Government programs such as the National School Lunch Program, The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants & Children and SNAP offer nutrition assistance to low-income individuals and families.

To address local hunger issues, two organizations run food help lines — 1-800-319-FOOD for Philabundance and 215-430-0556 for The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger — and several others run food banks.

Recently Drexel University, Vetri Community Partnership, and the West Philadelphia community opened EAT (Everyone At the Table) Café at 38th and Lancaster, with a pay-what-you-can model. Additionally, the center’s Witnesses to Hunger project documents real families experiencing hunger and poverty.

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