A quarter of Philadelphians are food insecure. What are we doing about it?

Photo by Kriston Bethel

Photo by Kriston Bethel

The Line

by Alex Jones

On a blustery, sunny Friday she’s taken off of work, Melanie Hudson waits in line for food.

“I have a lot more month than money,” says Hudson, 46, who works with autistic teens at Upper Darby High School. Her 17-year-old daughter Veronica is an honors student at the school and plans to join the Air Force when she graduates.

In 2009, Hudson’s husband passed away after a brain aneurysm and left her a single parent. She lost a job she’d held for 15 years. And, during what was already a time of great hardship, Hudson suffered significant damage to her eyesight due to glaucoma.

These challenges meant that Hudson, who radiates a confidence and positivity that belies her past troubles, had to seek help to ensure that her and her daughter’s basic needs were met. “I was trying to figure out how to feed my family,” she says.

She sought out assistance from Philabundance and began patronizing its Fresh For All program, a sort of traveling farmers market that distributes fresh produce and other perishable foods like milk, bread and even meats at no cost to anyone who shows up during the one-hour distribution window. This morning, Philabundance volunteers and staff in green sweatshirts and orange safety vests keep trays and boxes of fresh vegetables stocked while clients fill shopping bags, totes and carts with portions of each item.

Hudson greets fellow clients she hasn’t seen in a while after loading up her bags with cabbage, cauliflower, bananas, peppers, bread and milk. During the school year, her work schedule conflicts with the food distribution schedule, but during summer break, and days like today when she’s taken off work, she still lines up with a few hundred other Philabundance clients Friday mornings at Christ Lutheran in her Upper Darby neighborhood.

“When you come through the Philabundance line, it helps you get to know the members of your community,” says Hudson. “[You build] a type of network or friendship with the people that you stand in line with for about an hour [each week].”

The cold wind keeps the morning from feeling festive, but the sun is warm, people are chatty and the line moves relatively quickly. A boombox plays classic rock while a line of bundled-up clients stretches out of the parking lot and around the block. Clients from around 200 households who self-identify as in need of assistance will collect food at the day’s distribution, some lining up for the 9:30 start time at 7 a.m. The clientele is diverse: black, white, Asian, Latino, seniors, single men, teens, women with and without kids—everyone is represented.

Whether we know it when we see them or not, these are the faces of hunger in Philadelphia.

‘Radical hospitality’
A patched-together network of food pantries, soup kitchens, churches, grassroots organizations, regional nonprofits and other groups across the city do what they can to keep hungry Philadelphians fed as best they can. The Philly Food Finder, a web tool developed by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger (GPCAH), provides a single online portal that people can use to find myriad food resources near them. But the need far outweighs these essential yet short-term solutions.

Nationwide and across Pennsylvania, poverty levels have inched down in recent years. But here in Philadelphia, the problem has grown. One in four citizens are food insecure—running out of food and money to pay for it before the end of the month. That’s nearly twice the national and state average.

Hudson’s story helps to shatter myths some hold about the food insecure. Many are working people, single parents, and others are trying to make it as best they can in a city and country where, more than ever, the system seems designed to work against them.

But the problem also extends to unstable populations such as the homeless and people suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, which many people find more difficult to relate to than someone like Hudson. But these populations aren’t any less hungry, and new programs are also promoting the idea that they aren’t any less deserving of help—or respect.

When Philadelphians in need of a meal walk into Broad Street Ministry, they get something more than a full belly.

“Broad Street Ministry practices an approach we like to call radical hospitality,” says Executive Director Mike Dahl. “Our role, as we see it, is to serve as a wide-open front door for the most vulnerable populations in the city.”

Tablecloths, silverware and fine china top round tables spread throughout the sanctuary of the cathedral-like Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church building on the Avenue of the Arts. There are no plastic trays or chow lines. Meals are made exclusively with fresh ingredients—nothing frozen or canned. Wait staff take orders and serve meals to patrons as they would in a fine dining restaurant.

Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative, a program of Broad Street Ministry, estimates it will serve 80,000 meals to around 7,400 unique individuals in 2016. Many of these clients are among the city’s most vulnerable, living with addiction or mental health issues or attempting to re-enter society after being released from prison.

The food wouldn’t be out of place at one of the high-end restaurants on this tony downtown strip. Dinner at one of these Breaking Bread meals might be vegetable ratatouille served with polenta and balsamic reduction, for example. When he came on four years ago, Executive Chef Steven Seibel revamped the culinary program, making a point to design menus with quality, flavor and nutrition in mind. Service frequency also increased from one to seven meals per week.

“We wanted to be the one place where [guests] could come and get a meal that’s freshly made, that’s made with love—something that they don’t get much [elsewhere],” Seibel said.

The program takes a trauma-informed approach to serving its constituents, centering the experiences and perspectives of clients and avoiding coercive interventions or triggers—including excessive security or practices that pathologize clients—that may lead to re-traumatization.  Offering a top-quality dining experience, well-trained and sensitive staff and volunteers, and a host of other essential services on-site, can help clients reclaim feelings of personhood and a sense of stability after experiencing traumatic or challenging events in their lives.

Depending on the weather and the week—attendance spikes toward the end of the month when benefit checks have run out—Seibel and his team serve anywhere from 150 to 500 patrons per meal. In addition to conventional purveyors, he also sources from local, sustainable food sources when possible; the program receives regular donations of organic produce from Carversville Farm Foundation in Bucks County and has sourced grass-fed beef and tallow through whole-animal butcher Primal Supply Meats.

“We’re trying to put our purchasing power behind sustainable food operations, but we also know that we’re bringing in the best possible produce, the best possible protein for people that truly deserve it,” Seibel says.

While Breaking Bread meals are the primary entry point for patrons, Broad Street Ministries and its partner organizations provide “stabilizing services,” like distributing clothing and personal care items, offering health screenings and assistance signing up for benefits, and another unique service: a mailing address. Having an address can be the first step for patrons to re-establish their lives, as it’s often required to apply for an ID card, benefits, housing and jobs, and it provides a way for clients to reconnect with family and friends.

“We’re trying to provide a place that offers a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a place where [clients] can restore their self-value,” says Dahl. “Put simply, they’re going to be treated with respect and dignity.”

In West Philadelphia, another food service model that’s helping to feed those in need takes a community approach, bringing those who can afford to eat and those who can’t to the same table.

Many Philadelphians take for granted that they can walk into a restaurant and order a meal where they’re attended to by a team of professional servers and cooks—some of whom may be food insecure themselves. At EAT (Everyone at the Table) Café, divisions between those who can pay and those who cannot are removed.

It’s the city’s first not-for-profit, pay-what-you-can restaurant, offering tasty, wholesome meals to all in the community.

Diners can select one of two rotating three-course meals from a streamlined menu—caprese-inspired chopped salad, flavorful lemon roast chicken with pasta, sorbet with fruit for dessert and a hot cup of tea, for example—but when the check comes, diners decide what they can pay: the suggested price of $15, or more, or less, or nothing at all.

EAT Café wasn’t just conceived as a place where those unable to buy food might be able to get a healthy meal. The concept offers the same experience for everyone, combining a welcoming, community-driven ethos with touches that echo trends  that diners might see at the city’s cutting-edge BYOs and fast-casual restaurants, like a menu that’s updated every week based on what’s in season and a no-tipping policy, since all staff are paid a higher than average hourly wage.

The café is the culmination of a years-long collaboration of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the university’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, Vetri Community Partnership and the greater West Philly community.

“The idea is to minimize hunger,” said April Thompson-Harris, a Powelton Village resident and a member of the project’s Community Advisory Committee. “You have those who can afford [to eat] and those that can’t. If you’re able to pay the suggested price, that’s great. If you’re economically unable to, it’s perfectly fine. They designed [the restaurant] in this way for comfort, ease and community, and [so we can] grow together.”

The service, the food and even the end-of-meal transaction that usually occurs are designed to be the same for all diners, paying and nonpaying. In this way, EAT Café offers an experience that creates community by encouraging diners who can pay full price (or more) to do so to support the concept, while diners who can only pay less than full price or not at all can enjoy a healthy meal in a beautiful space side by side with other diners.

General Manager Donnell Jones-Craven, a food industry veteran whose culinary career has included fine dining, specialty catering and upscale hotels, joined the project in 2014 and has worked with project partners to bring EAT Café from an idea to a brick-and-mortar space to open for business.

“I'm really excited about getting open and working with my staff and just making our hospitality and our customer service stand out—then the food comes after that,” Jones-Craven said just before the café’s opening in late October.

The food that EAT Café serves comes from a combination of donations from grocers, bakeries and other food businesses as well as purchases from purveyors. It’s important to Jones-Craven to build relationships with mission-aligned organizations and businesses, and to source food produced within 200 miles of Philadelphia, including urban growers, whenever possible.

“We’ll be utilizing purveyors that are sensitive and passionate about what we’re doing, who want to join our cause, as well as local community gardens [and] local grocery stores,” says Jones-Craven. They’ve received donations from businesses like Giant supermarket in Wynnewood and Metropolitan Bakery’s Rittenhouse location, among others.

EAT Café’s menu, which is posted online each week, will change seasonally and based on which ingredients have been donated. While selections are limited—initial menus included two appetizer and dessert choices and three entrée options—the kitchen is able to accommodate for dietary restrictions and food allergies.

Waste not, want not
Even as a large percentage of our country goes hungry, we’re still throwing out an awful lot of food. That’s why Megha Kulshreshtha set out to reduce food waste and feed hungry people. Food Connect, the program she’s been developing since 2014, does both.

As the Indian-American child of immigrants growing up in a New Jersey home where food was never wasted and resources were sometimes scarce, it felt natural to Kulshreshtha, who is now a real estate investor, to find a way to give back. In her case, that meant working nights and weekends to develop a solution to food waste and food insecurity: a way to connect excess prepared food with those who could most use it in a manner that’s timely, convenient  and safe.

Food waste is a big problem—and not just because unused food could be used to feed those who don’t have enough. Food waste uses other resources on a large scale: According to ReFED, an alliance of advocates, funders and government agencies dedicated to reducing food waste and its negative impacts, the $218 billion worth of U.S. food wasted each year consumes 21 percent of all fresh water, 19 percent of all fertilizer, 21 percent of landfill volume and 18 percent of cropland.

In response, some supermarket chains have started marketing “ugly” produce, like misshapen carrots, that would otherwise go to waste. Other programs, like Hungry Harvest, which recently began serving the Philadelphia market, aggregate this produce into affordable, CSA-style subscription boxes priced at 20 to 30 percent less than supermarket produce and delivered straight to customers’ homes.

Food Connect intervenes at the food service level, rescuing uneaten but perfectly good food from the waste stream. Restaurants, dining halls and other food service operations with excess food—say, trays of lasagna from a college cafeteria or unserved bowls of salad from a catered wedding—can use Food Connect’s app to schedule pickups. Volunteer drivers are dispatched to pick up donations and bring them straight to the food pantries, shelters and other institutions that distribute food to those who need it.

In its first 30 months, Food Connect donated 6,000 meals—not bad for an all-volunteer organization recording transactions by hand on paper.

“I didn’t want to build [technology] until I knew exactly where the pain point was,” says Kulshreshtha, who has so far funded the all-volunteer program out of pocket. Logistics—how the food would get from donor to recipient promptly—was a big one.

“We addressed that [bottleneck] by leveraging existing resources and efforts in our city,” Kulshreshtha says. “That’s where that Philly spirit comes in, and we really saw that play out during the DNC.”

Food Connect had the technology, but it didn’t have the resources to rescue food at the 50,000-person event in July. Partnering with other hunger relief programs, which already have vehicles and drivers on the road, was key to increasing the program’s capacity in time for the convention. Working with mission-aligned organizations, Kulshreshtha was able to dispatch, say, a Philabundance truck to pick up and deliver a big donation, while a small army of volunteers from around the city helped ferry pickups from smaller-scale businesses.

“What you saw happening was a coming together of all of these different efforts,” she said. “We were able to do this really fast because we didn’t have to do it all ourselves. It really was a team effort.”

That scaling up made possible by the app has made a big difference in Food Connect’s impact. Since the convention, approximately 50,000 meals have been rescued and donated to organizations feeding Philadelphians in need. And the event inspired some big players in Philly food service such as Garces Group Catering, Starr Catering and Temple University’s dining halls to sign up and use the service to donate surplus.

Food Connect’s next phase, Kulshreshtha hopes, is to raise funds to secure the program in Philadelphia; other cities have also expressed interest in a similar model. “Now that we see that there’s real demand for all of this, [our goal] is keeping up with that demand,” she said. “[Donors] are really excited to have this option in a safe and efficient way.”

A growing problem, with threats looming
These programs give cause for hope, but their efficacy is limited by the sheer scale of the problem of food poverty and food insecurity. In the background of rising numbers on both fronts, the specter of federal funding cuts looms, particularly given the results of the presidential election and conservative sentiment about entitlement programs.

“In Philadelphia, if you look at the number of young kids in poverty, that number actually went up [in 2016],” says Kate Scully, policy director at Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, which focuses on studying and mitigating the impact of hunger on very young children. The problem of hunger is nested within the problem of poverty—not making enough money to meet your and your family’s basic needs.

“Hunger doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Scully said. “When kids are food insecure, they’re often energy insecure, housing insecure.”

This increase is echoed in poverty levels in the city overall. "Even with the household income increasing slightly, the poverty level [in our city] remains around 26 percent,” says Tom Mahon, communications director at GPCAH.

One in four Philadelphians live at or below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as an annual income of $24,300 for a family of four—far below a living wage just about anywhere, let alone in a major metropolitan area.

Twelve percent of the city’s population—that’s around 183,000 people, according to 2013 census data—live in deep poverty, defined as income at 50 percent of the poverty level or less. That’s $12,150 to provide food, clothing and housing for a family of four.

What’s more, hunger affects vulnerable and minority populations disproportionately. Thirty-six percent of children and 6 percent of seniors in Philadelphia fit the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition of “food insecure,” according to data from GPCAH.

Hunger affects black (18 percent) and Latino (25 percent) populations more than whites (14 percent), and food insecure people are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to require mental health services than those who have enough to eat, GPCAH data show. And because of the lack of access to fresh food in many low-income neighborhoods, food insecure people are at higher risk of obesity-related health issues.

While the city has struggled with poverty and food insecurity for the past several decades, the recent recession made things much worse.

“There are plenty of people above the poverty line who still struggle,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at GPCAH. “Even as unemployment has dropped, there are a lot of jobs that don’t pay very well and don’t provide full-time hours. There are plenty of people who would love to be working full time, but they’re scheduled for 20 or 25 hours a week.” And low-paying jobs in the service industry, for example, often have schedules that change frequently, which can make securing a second job or other paying work impossible.

An increase in the minimum wage, Fisher says, would be a huge step toward ending hunger and poverty in Philadelphia; similar initiatives in other states have been effective in reducing poverty.

To put all these numbers in perspective, it helps to see what the situation looks like on the ground to organizations fighting food insecurity.

Share Food Program distributes emergency food to food pantries; in 2015, more than 500 volunteer-led food pantries in Philadelphia County alone received emergency food donations from Share totaling nearly 25 million pounds of food. The organization also partners with community groups such as churches and senior centers to provide families and individuals with monthly food packages, which include such items as fresh fruit, frozen poultry or fish, eggs, packaged foods and canned vegetables. They are offered at a low cost, and Share requires that recipients put in two hours of volunteer time in exchange for the package.

Despite Share’s significant service area and impact—in addition to its home base of Philadelphia, Share offers distribution points in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and metro New York—the number of families seeking the organization’s services just keeps growing.

Share saw a 31.4 percent increase in the number of low-income individuals its programs serve each month between 2011 and 2015. An average of 150 families patronize the food cupboards that Share supports during distributions, often overwhelming programs that are run out of small neighborhood churches or community hubs.

“The biggest challenge is having enough resources to provide food to the ever increasing number of food cupboards and the people they serve,” says Steveanna Wynn, the organization’s executive director.

The specter of further cuts to the social safety net and other policies that negatively affect low-income and marginalized populations would put further strain on resources already spread thin.

Wynn says it’s too soon to say how the impending Trump administration’s policies might affect the ability of local and state governments and advocacy organizations to support those who are food insecure.

“Everyone in the community will need to be part of the solution in making sure people have food to eat,” Wynn says. “It is a basic right, and in 2016, it is a shame we are still having this discussion.” Wynn and her fellow advocates “plan to be vigilant on the legislative front and increase advocacy and education to legislators and families as needed.”

At the same time, she says, “We are trying not to react to what we do not know. So much depends on the reauthorization of the Farm Bill [which includes SNAP legislation] and child nutrition program.”

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the new name for what many know as “food stamps,” and advocates maintain that it’s a critical piece.  

“SNAP is the number one defense against hunger in America,” says Fisher. One in seven Americans receives benefits, with that ratio even higher in poorer states.

Streamlining the application process for SNAP and making it easier for those in need to keep their benefits would also help; the city has set up BenePhilly centers to offer this kind of support.

Even with organizations like GPCAH helping approximately 5,000 individuals each year to navigate the arduous process of applying for SNAP, the program has less power to mitigate the effects of poverty than it used to. According to a 2016 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, recent budget cuts have reduced benefits for many recipients, and seniors have been hardest hit. Time limits implemented at the federal level have reduced or eliminated benefits for able-bodied, low-income adults without children, many of whom do not qualify for other forms of assistance.

According to the Office of Sustainability’s 2016 Greenworks report, one in three Philadelphians receives SNAP benefits, but one out of every 10 Philadelphians qualifies for benefits and does not receive them—only 73 percent of eligible households in the city are currently enrolled in the program.

“There’s still quite a bit of stigma, especially among seniors, [around] participation in the SNAP program,” Fisher said. Getting the word out about existing programs like free school breakfasts, which have a high rate of use at some schools with food insecure students but not others, she said, will have a positive impact.

‘It’s OK to ask for a little help’
According to GPCAH’s Mahon, a lot of the challenges around mitigating the effects of hunger on Philadelphians in need are due to a stigma that still exists around seeking assistance, whether from a neighborhood food pantry or through SNAP.

“This is a problem that affects so many people,” Mahon said. “Almost 500,000 in Philadelphia alone receive SNAP benefits. I think people, when they are in this situation, get the sense that they’re all alone, and we’re trying to reach out to them and say, listen: There are countless other people that are facing similar issues, and we’re here to provide resources and let you know that you’re not in this alone."

That’s why Melanie Hudson is spreading the word that everyone goes through challenges, and there should be no shame attached if you need support.

“Sometimes I look back, when you weigh it out, it’s more hard times than good,” Hudson said. “But my attitude is really good about it, because what’s the alternative to living life and trying to get through it?”  

After looking to Philabundance for support during her hardest times, Hudson says she’s grateful for the opportunity to give back to the organization and her community by working with the organization’s public relations department, which seeks out clients who’d like to share how its support has affected them.

“I was like, ‘What’s the big thing about me standing in line getting food?’” said Hudson of the first time the organization approached her about sharing her story. “Now I see that it’s bigger than that. Philabundance is more than food.”

In this role, Hudson is able to act as an ambassador to those who might be in need but afraid to ask for help, and also as an example of a person served by the program who shows funders and the public what food insecurity really looks like.

“It’s OK to ask for a little help,” she said. “We all need it sometimes. It’s OK.”