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One Step Away: The grassroots fight against food insecurity in Philadelphia

In 2006, the U.S. government replaced "hunger" with the term "food insecure" to differentiate between the temporary physical feeling that accompanies lack of nourishment and the extended periods of time that people lack access to proper nutrition. Often a result of income inequality, food insecurity is defined as the inability to afford enough food to maintain a healthy and fulfilling life.

Regardless of the name, the U.S. has seen food insecurity increase drastically since the 1960s, from one in 20 Americans to now one in seven.

Meanwhile, as emergency food pantries and soup kitchens have increased from a few hundred emergency food programs in 1980 to over 50,000 today, they cannot keep up with demand. To cope with increasing demand, pantries limit distribution availability, reduce the amount of food given out, or turn people away.

As incomes remain low, unemployment and underemployment stays high, and food cost continues to rise, millions of Americans cannot afford to go grocery shopping.

In 2014, one in seven people reported running out of groceries before the end of the month. That equates to 48.1 million – 14 percent of Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's report, this number corresponds directly to U.S. poverty rates, which are 46.7 million people, or 14.8 percent.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show households with children are hit by food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children – 19 percent compared to 12 percent.

Additionally, single-parent, African American, and Hispanic households experienced food insecurity at rates exceptionally higher than the national averages. The groups hit hardest by food insecurity are households with children headed by single women (35 percent), households with children headed by single men (22 percent), black non-Hispanic households (26 percent), and Hispanic households (22 percent).

What exactly is food insecurity?

Food insecurity is primarily a problem of inadequate wages. Our current social programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are designed as safety nets to catch people when they become unemployed or unemployable (like the elderly, disabled, or children).

As such, they are not meant to provide support to those who are working or considered able-to-work. Programs that do currently offer even temporary emergency assistance are on both the state and federal budget chopping blocks.

As costs of living continue to rise alongside underemployment, the public funding of our safety nets experiences frequent and drastic cuts. Our traditional approaches to ensure people have sufficient food have become overburdened. We are in need of new, creative, and local approaches that address our problems of poverty and food insecurity at the root. We need programs that are able to give people consistent access to food while helping them increase their income.

Recently, due to the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the government examined the cause of health disparities due to people's social environment and income. One of the key findings is that the availability and affordability of nutritious foods are major health concerns in all communities. In terms of health, food is arguably the most basic human need. Going without it affects every aspect of a person's life.

According to a 2015 Hunger Coalition study, hungry people are at a higher risk for chronic illness, 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized, and twice as likely to need mental health services.

Additionally, health issues due to malnutrition and hunger affect how people are able to perform at work and in school. Children who are hungry are found to be more prone to physical and emotional development problems. They are 60 percent more likely to miss school, 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade, and twice as likely to be suspended or require special education.

Without action, these things play into an endless cycle that perpetuates poverty and inequalities in our society.

Food hardship in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, the situation is worse. In Philadelphia, one in four people experiences food insecurity. This is nearly double U.S. and state rates.

In September 2014, the state of Pennsylvania boasted a modest decline in food insecurity, from 12.5 percent in 2008-2010 to 11.9 percent in 2011-2013.

In Philadelphia, the food insecurity rate has remained well above the national average for nearly a decade, despite the abundance of food that flows through its markets annually. Last year, over 326,000 people – or 21.2 percent of Philadelphians – were food insecure.

Even while this number remains high relative to the national average, it is still conflated by rates that differ drastically between neighborhoods. For example, in parts of the First and Second Congressional Districts, households have an annual income of $4,999 to $15,000, way below the federal poverty line set at $20,090 for a family of three.

In these neighborhoods, over one-third of households with children experienced food hardship. Residents experiencing food hardship have less money to spend overall and must put more money towards their basic needs, leaving them with little buying power for food.

While the average Philadelphian spends 54 percent of their income on housing and transportation, residents of these areas are spending nearly 80 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics. What remains for food after other needs is barely 20 percent of what the USDA Food and Nutrition Service prescribes.

For low-income families in Philadelphia, income severely limits spending, and by extension health and quality of life. To make matters even worse, recent changes to the SNAP decreased average benefits by about $90 per month. These cuts equate to 34 lost meals per month and 3.2 billion meals lost over 10 years.

New cuts, new measurements

Families can no longer SNAP out of hunger. On Feb. 7, 2015, President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014, slashing $8.6 billion from the SNAP budget. This cut follows an $11 billion cut to SNAP that took effect on Nov. 1, 2013 and is just one component of a larger bill that includes billions of dollars of increases to American agriculture in the form of new, expanded, and largely unlimited crop insurance subsidies. More cuts are expected over the next 10 years, ultimately reducing SNAP's budget by $40 billion.

As these cuts take effect, 850,000 households that participate in SNAP will see their benefits decrease. This includes 22 million children and 9 million people who are elderly or have a serious disability.

Following new law, we can no longer measure hunger through the presence of food alone. Perceived food deserts can no longer be fixed by introducing a full-service grocery store or placing a farmers' market in a neighborhood.

Employment, housing cost, and income are just a few factors that currently drive food insecurity. Combined physical, social, and economic context – where we live, who we know and can rely on locally, and how much money we earn – plays a larger role than ever in how people get the food they need. The rules for measuring health and quality of life need to change in order to properly measure the lifelong impact of hunger and poverty.

A grassroots movement

We can do better. How can we help people access the amount of food they need to live healthy and fulfilling lifestyles?

In eastern North Philadelphia, the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha's (APM) Food Buying Club uses grassroots community-based tactics to address the rising problem of food insecurity in their neighborhood. APM's approach differs from existing food distribution models because their primary focus is to provide a financial benefit to members while also providing a way for members to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

APM's philosophy is based on the best way to improve quality of life for individuals living in the area. The APM Food Buying Club addresses the number one driving factor of food insecurity – economic stability (poverty, food security, employment) and social and community context (social cohesion and civic participation).

This is not the type of value you can just get from a store.

"We believe that through the distribution of affordable quality produce via a pop-up distribution model, our families will eat healthy, work together, and develop relationships and community," says Angel Rodriguez, vice president of APM's Community Economic Development. The APM Food Buying Club reduces the food-cost-to-income ratios for low-income families, resulting in increased buying power and cash savings.

APM's Food Buying Club distributes affordable, quality produce through a bulk buying club model, utilizing the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Every two weeks, through the work of volunteers and paid community connectors, families are able to access fresh, quality food within their own neighborhood from one of their pop-up food distribution centers.

What truly makes this model unique and different from traditional food distribution models is that it allows clients to retain the power of choice, maintain their dignity, and gain access to affordable, quality produce. Unlike typical green food initiatives, like Community Supported Agriculture or farm share models, it puts the low-income consumer first.

It should be noted that of the produce distributed by the FBC, 20 to 40 percent is from the local region, and 60 to 70 percent is from the United States. The Food Buying Club does not require membership fees, creating accessible direct and discretionary cash saving to households with no barrier to entry. Last year, it served 440 households (nearly 1,200 people), saved community members cumulatively over $81,000, distributed over 32,000 pounds of fresh produce, and employed five residents in a part-time capacity.

APM's Food Buying Club offers social value as well as economic. "I wanted my family to eat healthy," says resident and FBC volunteer Melinda Martinez. "When I started doing it, I went to the supermarket and saw how much I was saving through the Food Buying Club compared to the supermarkets in our neighborhood.

"Because of the Food Buying Club, people communicate with each other more and are learning about other people in the community they did not know before.  My kids can now name people they see on the street. It feels more like a community now because there's more contact. It's not just get in your car and go."

APM's unique model creates a place where people come for food and stay for the interaction with their neighbors.

From every problem comes opportunity. In order for our programs to have a sustainable impact, they need to put the focus back on the people they are meant to serve. As inequalities persist, it only becomes more imperative for us to rethink our approaches to social problems.

It is no longer enough to settle on solutions just because they are familiar. As a city, we need to realize that when one of us is left behind, we as a whole are held back.