Part 3a of 4: Food Drives Help, But Can’t Fully ‘Strike Out Hunger’

Keith Brown, for the Shuttle

On the way home from a Phillies game last week, I learned that Hatfield Quality Meats was donating 100 pounds of food to Philabundance for each home run the Phillies hit in the game. They hit three!

In many ways, this is great news. Since 2011, the Phillies and their corporate partners have raised over $500,000 for Philabundance alone. Support like this goes a long way for the non-profit organizations throughout the region that make sure residents have enough to eat. These charitable organizations, largely staffed by women, are lobbying businesses for donations and conducting food drives throughout the region. With 600-800 food pantries and soup kitchens in Philadelphia alone, these organizations need help.

The Phillies say their goal is to “strike out hunger.” But even though these efforts deserve applause, they also blind us to a greater problem. The number of hungry and food insecure people in the region is not declining. 

Philadelphia is the poorest of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. Since the Great Recession of 2008, rates of food insecurity in the nine other cities have improved, with fewer people expressing “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” In Philadelphia, we have not enjoyed the same success.

There are many reasons for this. The loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s still impacts the financial conditions of many of our poorest families. The transition to a service economy, a decline in union participation, and a stalled minimum wage means that working-class jobs do not pay nearly as much as they did 30 years ago. Further, increased economic segregation in Philadelphia neighborhoods means wealthier residents do not live alongside poorer residents, and often do not understand the daily struggles of making ends meet. 

Racial segregation compounds these problems, causing some to blame poverty on individual attributes instead of on the policies that led to neighborhoods with exceptionally high poverty rates. Perhaps most importantly starting in the 1980s, state and federal governments rolled back the safety net designed to allow people to lift themselves out of poverty. Today, instead of expecting our government to protect our poorest citizens, we praise good “corporate citizens” for their donations. 

These problems often feel overwhelming, but the Weavers Way community is playing an active role in solving some of the area’s food problems. In my view, a two-pronged approach is appropriate. First, we need to continue our charitable donations to support families facing food insecurity. The Co-op’s most-recent food drive was a step in the right direction, raising over 4,000 pounds of non-perishable food items. In addition, the Food For All program is slowly, but steadily, growing. FFA is the member-owner discount program that provides a stackable 10% discount on nearly everything at the Co-op. The Food Justice Committee is working with management to discuss whether we can increase the FFA discount from 10% to 20%. Reducing the financial barriers to healthy, sustainable food can make a major difference in a family’s budget.

But our charitable efforts are really just a Band-Aid on a more serious problem. Therefore, our efforts to increase food access must be complemented with government action. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most important government-funded program to help low-income individuals and families purchase food; over 43 million Americans are currently using it. While I was working on a research team examining SNAP in Philadelphia, recipients told us that the program provides enough food for one to two weeks each month. After that, residents seek help from soup kitchens, food pantries, friends, and neighbors. We talked with many people who were literally spending hours and hours each week to save a few dollars on food. They cut coupons, obsessed over weekly store circulars, and took the bus or carpooled to four or five stores each month to find the best deals on food. One woman told us that “even a few nickels make a big difference.” 

SNAP is an effective program, but it still needs improvements. The enrollment process could be much easier to complete, and increasing benefits would greatly help families and local businesses. Increased benefits would also allow recipients more time and energy to focus on school, find work, and plan for their family’s future. Of course, improving the SNAP program is not a silver bullet that will eliminate hunger and food insecurity. But we need to keep poverty and food issues on the forefront of our representatives’ agendas.

Although giving to a local food bank or volunteering our time builds community and makes us feel like we are making a difference, it will never “strike out hunger.” Let’s work harder to reduce the number of people who are hungry in the first place.