Philadelphia’s rich history and affluent Center City make it an attractive tourist destination.
But less than five miles north of City Hall sits Hunting Park in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District. The district is considered the second hungriest in the nation, according to a 2011 report by the Food Research and Action Center. While the area has slightly improved over the last few years, it appears because of a lack of political will, coupled with compromising federal, state and local policies, hunger may continue to remain a difficult issue in Hunting Park.
Executive Director of the Coalition Against Hunger Carey Morgan said, “Hunger is a symptom of the overall economy.”
When the economy is doing well, Morgan said, people can afford to buy the food they need. However, as the national economy continues to struggle and the local economy is polarized between a few wealthy neighborhoods, like Center City, and a lot of poorer neighborhoods, like Hunting Park, it is difficult for those who rely on food stamps to break the cycle.
“Until the wealth gap is closed, generation poverty isn’t going away,” Morgan said.
Pennsylvania officials voted to cut the amount of federal dollars the food stamp program receives, which goes into effect May 1. But Morgan said that cutting the food stamp program would weaken the economy.
“Food stamps are a huge economic stimulus,” Morgan said. “It’s been proven to be the best economic stimulus. When people get food stamps they don’t have the luxury of holding it off for a day, they need to spend it now.”
Food insecurity is not just affecting those living below the poverty line. Marlo DelSordo of Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank system, said there’s another economic class that needs food assistance.
“People that have been just laid off or the working class poor, those people are looking for food assistance more than those at or below poverty,” DelSordo said. “Unfortunately, these people don’t qualify for food stamps.”
Doctor Marianne Chilton is a hunger expert and professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health. She said the federal food stamp program is designed for those living in poverty to stay in poverty.
“I have great respect for the government programs here in place. But they are not anti-poverty programs because if you have someone who is just starting to make a little extra money, you get cut off from welfare programs, you get cut off of food stamps,” Chilton said.
More Americans are enrolled in the country’s food stamp program than ever before. Morgan said about one in two people in Philadelphia is eligible for food stamps, although that number could be greater in Hunting Park.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who represents Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District, is hoping to bring awareness to the issue by living off of $5 a day for a week during the last week of April. Brady did not respond to requests for an interview, but Morgan said that the Coalition Against Hunger is supporting his efforts because it’s important to understand how those who survive on food stamps live.
But John Featherman, Brady’s single rival in his district’s general elections in November, described Brady’s plan as more of a show than actual action.
“I would be embarrassed and ashamed to participate in such a stunt if I wasn’t able to improve the condition of my district after eight terms,” Featherman said. “He doesn’t have a plan, I do have a plan.”
Featherman added that a part of his plan includes to support small businesses in the area. Morgan argued that while a lot of aspects contribute to food insecurity in the area, poverty is its biggest problem. In particular, Philadelphians aren’t as educated as they need to be in a manufacturing-turned-service economy. As a result, jobs turn elsewhere. Without stronger education programs and better jobs, the local economy’s tax base will remain low and many parts of the city will remain in poverty and not be able to afford food, Morgan said.
“People buy junk food because it’s cheap, and part of the reason is that so many of those large commodities are subsidized,” Morgan said.
Morgan added that local food insecurity, like in Hunting Park, is the direct result of flawed federal policy. While the federal government doesn’t directly subsidize junk food, it does subsidize corn. Because a lot of junk foods are corn based, some argue that the government is indirectly subsidizing junk food, which contributes to obesity.
But food insecurity isn’t the only problem the district faces. With a lack of grocery stores and an overflow of corner stores on most blocks, fresh food is hard to come by. And when it is, it’s expensive.
Meanwhile, state officials in Pennsylvania have passed stricter eligibility requirements for Pennsylvania’s food stamp program, despite that the program is federally funded and doesn’t cost the state anything. Republican Governor Tom Corbett argued that cuts are necessary to reduce the federal budget.
But while Featherman’s plan couldn’t come to fruition until after the November general election—if he is elected—and as Brady begins his week-long food challenge, it appears both candidates are too late to help the 180,000 Philadelphians who could be affected when the implementation of Pennsylvania’s new food stamp requirements begin next month.