When Sharline Heller heard a few years ago that Philadelphia's First Congressional District was the second-hungriest in the country, she had to do something about it.
"I've never told anyone this," she said, then paused, "but I've been there."
Today, Heller, 81, lives at the Philadelphian, a high-rise apartment building on the Parkway. But many decades ago, she was divorced and caring for her young son and daughter.
Although she always worked, one day "the check just didn't come. There were enough eggs and bread for just one meal. And then we were going to go hungry."
Life improved with full-time work. She got a job at Temple in 1985, as assistant to president Peter Liacouras, then moved to State College to work at Pennsylvania State University, planning events. She moved back to Philadelphia to work for the American Heart Association.
In 2011, she found out about Farm to Families, a start-up anti-hunger program at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children that provides fresh produce, and leaped into action. Hans Kersten, who heads the "failure to thrive" practice at the hospital, was writing "prescriptions" for healthy food for his little patients.
"He wanted to start it, and he asked me to run it," Heller said. So she did.
By then, Heller had retired. But she wanted to remain active in her favorite cause: fighting hunger. To run the program efficiently, she learned to speak Spanish fluently so she could communicate with some of the families who came in for their boxes of produce.
There is no income requirement for Farm to Families. Anyone can come in to a location and sign up for fresh vegetables and fruit.
Social workers also identify for the program families who suffer from "food insecurity." Since the program's inception, families have signed up for more than 10,000 Farm to Families produce boxes, she says.
Although Heller went on to have a successful career after her hunger scare, "I never forgot how close we came. So when I moved back to Philadelphia . . . [in 1992], I wanted to get involved in hunger policy."
She's active with PhillyFoodFinder.org, part of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, which helps people of all incomes find free meals around the city.
There's a guide to free meals in Philadelphia, available by calling 211 or visiting the website www.211sepa.org.
Heller also has cooked at the Trinity Urban Center at 22d and Spruce Streets, which delivers hot food.
What she's fighting are so-called food deserts, areas where healthy food is unaffordable or simply not available. These include neighborhoods and workplaces with cafeterias, vending machines, and stores that offer mainly unhealthy options.
"Given that we know that diet and physical activity are powerful factors in the development of chronic illness, we can't afford not to change our environment to make healthy choices easier," U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last month.
Farm to Families collaborates with area doctors and health-care providers who, as Kersten did at the program's start, write food "prescriptions" for patients. A family pays $10 or $15 a week (depending on income) to receive a box of fresh produce. Cash, credit, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (EBT cards) are all accepted for payment.
Since the 2011 launch at St. Christopher's, the program has expanded to various health centers throughout North Philadelphia.
Every Friday, Heller oversees the distribution at St. Christopher's.
She meets children "who've never eaten beets. I ate them all the time growing up!"
"My mother made me shell the lima beans and the pea pods and shuck the corn. Now, I'm introducing children to fresh vegetables."
She likes to give children recipes, too, so they can cook the food on their own and learn for themselves. Heller calls herself a believer in Margaret Mead's way of thinking that "women of a certain age, it's our job to repair the world. Food is my issue."