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Hunger in Philly: 'It's a pain in my belly'

In North Philadelphia and nearby communities, hunger is too easy to find. Hunger fighters are trying, in ways old and new, to beat back an untiring scourge.

Rebecca Farmer, 62, says grace before eating a free lunch at Devereux Methodist Church in North Philadelphia. She says she retired too soon and now faces hunger.
Rebecca Farmer, 62, says grace before eating a free lunch at Devereux Methodist Church in North Philadelphia. She says she retired too soon and now faces hunger.Read moreAlfred Lubrano

Sister Margaret McKenna's brown crucifix dangles and dances from her neck as she tills the vegetable garden she's carved out of the poorest neighborhood in the poorest big city in America.

As she works, fat bees float low over the fertile North Philadelphia dirt. Sister Margaret smiles.

"I'm so proud we have bumble bees," says the 88-year-old nun who coaxes vegetables from the soil to supplement the community food cupboard that's part of New Jerusalem Now, an addiction recovery center she founded in 1989 on West Norris Street. "Bees are a dying breed, and so necessary."

She might as well be describing herself. Many of the roughly 900 food cupboards in the region that feed the hungry are run by religious women such as Sister Margaret, born before color television, with Jesus in their hearts and comfortable shoes on their feet. The Ph.D. in Christian origins from the University of Pennsylvania displays a photo of the pope on her refrigerator. She once worked as an archaeologist at an ancient temple site in Israel.

"I've come from the desert to the abandoned inner city," Sister Margaret says. "The desert helped me understand what God wants me to do in the world: I realized I can't enjoy eating if people don't have food."

In North Philadelphia and nearby communities, hunger is too easy to find. Hunger fighters are trying, in ways old and new, to beat back an untiring scourge.

"I am hungry, hell, yes," said William Dillahunty, 65, who lives alone in a small North Philadelphia apartment, supported by Social Security disability benefits from a construction mishap. "I'll walk around supermarkets pretending to shop, opening food packages, then eating away from the cameras. I don't feel bad at all. You would kill somebody to eat. Do or die."

Finally, he said, he was caught shoplifting and jailed — "which was good for me. They have to feed you there."

The North Philadelphia area, including Fairhill and parts of Kensington, ranks among the hungriest in the United States, with 25.9 percent of people living there relying on food stamps, known as federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Only nine other places in the country are more SNAP-dependent.

Throughout the nation, about 12 percent of people are food insecure — lacking enough food in a year to lead a healthy life, according to data from Feeding America in Chicago, the largest hunger-relief nonprofit in the country. In Philadelphia, it's 21 percent. In North Philadelphia, food insecurity runs as high as 30 percent.

While childhood hunger has remained steady in the United States, it's tripled in North Philadelphia among families where parents work 20 or more hours a week, according to research by Drexel University Professor Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities.

Belly pain

What is it like to be hungry?

"Hunger feels like your stomach pushing into your back — a great pressure," said Tinze Jones, 40, a hospital housekeeper and single mother of three in North Philadelphia. "So I drink water. My kids don't get enough food, so I don't eat. One of the hardest things to do is prepare food you know you won't have."

"It's pain in my belly," said an 11-year-old boy who volunteers at Sister Margaret's center because, he said, "I want to go to heaven."  The boy's father was murdered and although his mother works full time, food is still scarce for him, his grandmother, and his three brothers. "I love to eat," he said, "and sometimes I think I'll never eat again when it's gone. It makes me disappointed. And it's very unfair. I don't want my family starving."

"I feel empty and so embarrassed to not have food for me and my three kids," said Valerie Kelley, 51,  a former security guard who lost her job due to extreme heart problems.  "You feel like a complete failure."

To fight hunger, large, local charitable agencies such as SHARE and Philabundance supply the numerous cupboards here with tons of food in a system where need grows yearly.

Newly joining the battle, hospitals have begun seeing hunger as a medical condition, writing "prescriptions" for boxes of food, screening patients to learn their level of food insecurity, and pointing them toward help.

Undergirding all efforts is SNAP, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, by far, the most effective solution to hunger in America, advocates say. About 40 million Americans receive average monthly SNAP benefits of about $1.40 a meal.

For every meal that agencies such as Philabundance supplies, SNAP provides 12, according to Feeding America.

President Trump has said he wants to cut SNAP benefits by at least 25 percent, while Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have proposed eliminating 1.2 million monthly recipients, in part by creating work requirements for benefits.

As it happens, said Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance, the vast majority of those who receive SNAP have jobs or are children, elderly, or disabled.

"There's a real lack of understanding of how big a problem hunger really is," said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. People who want to limit SNAP benefits, she added, incorrectly see the hungry as freeloaders.

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Advocates argue that solving hunger is feasible, if only the national will existed.

However, the fixes recommended to bring about a solution — expanding SNAP, boosting wages, giving workers sick leave and family leave, and limiting tax breaks for corporations to reroute funds to people in poverty — are not readily embraced by Congress, state legislatures, or even many citizens.

Meanwhile, hunger persists. And people such as Sister Margaret cultivate a garden in the cityscape.

"If not for Sister Margaret and New Jerusalem food, I'd be in deep trouble," said Evelyn Harville, a 76-year-old widow who supports two out-of-work children and a grandchild.

Harville, who worked all her life — most recently as an X-ray technician — said Social Security is inadequate to keep her family out of poverty. And that riles her.

"It's demeaning to live in the United States and to have to stand in a food line, especially when you worked and paid into the system," she said. "My mother didn't raise bums.

"But here I am anyway."

The hunger of the 21st

By the third week of the month, Philadelphia gets hungry.

People are starting to run out of SNAP benefits because the allotment is too small, Mariana Chilton's research shows. That's the hard time, say residents who show up to eat free lunch on Wednesdays in the bright white basement of Devereux Methodist Church on West Allegheny Avenue.

"There's short patience by the 21st or so," said director Thelma Kennerly, 66.

No one in North Philly is eating enough, said Rebecca Farmer, 62, one of the lunch guests who said she retired too early from Tastykake and descended into deep poverty. "They ate bread and water in the Bible," she said. "For me, it's ramen noodles. I once said I'd never eat them. But they're four for a dollar."

The women who volunteer with Kennerly notice the hardship in their midst:

"You see hunger in the way people eat," said Mildred Perkins, 78.

"People gobbling it up," agreed Denise Hawkins, 61.

"You can't give them enough," said Diane Williams, 65

"And all the children take adult portions," Kennerly concluded.

Worse than predicted

Throughout the state, hospitals are screening people to learn their level of hunger. Many are prescribed discounted boxes of produce by doctors.

Coordinated by the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, the effort was initially tried by the St. Christopher's Foundation for Children at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia.

Michael Consuelos, senior vice president for clinical integration at the association, said that about 7,000 Philadelphians have recently been asked about hunger.

"Our data is just coming out now and Philadelphia is worse than we predicted," he said, explaining that his group places food insecurity at about one in four people in the city.

"We are never going to affect obesity, heart disease, and diabetes if we don't deal with the lack of healthy food in the home," said Saba Khan, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, part of the association's research group. Children who are food insecure are twice as likely to be in poor health, studies show, and face the potential stunting of their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development.

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But getting produce from medical centers won't solve hunger, Chilton asserted. "I guarantee you families don't want to go to hospitals to lug boxes home."

Chilton said it's not just the poor in Philadelphia who advocates must deal with; it's the rich who have to get involved.

"We need to demand that big corporations pay more taxes that we can invest in children," she said. "Or, that every Phillies ticket be taxed to pay to create bank accounts for every child."

Bergman of Philabundance said retail owners need to pay workers better. "We're not treating the working person humanely," he said. Temple sociologist Judith Levine agreed: "Philadelphia is not hospitable to low-income people."

As advocates argue, the hungry do without.

"You know, I was hungry as a kid," said Tinze Jones, the hospital worker and North Philadelphia mother of three. "I vowed never to be in a line for food. But now I always am.

"Where is the next meal coming from? Let me tell you something: It's awful not to eat."

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push towards economic justice. Read more at: or follow @BrokeInPhilly