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Report: Hunger in Philadelphia increases 22 percent

The hunger numbers reflect a level of hardship in Philadelphia that conflicts with national trends.

A farmer's market and cooking demonstration at Devereaux United Methodist Church on Allegheny Avenue and 25th Street.
A farmer's market and cooking demonstration at Devereaux United Methodist Church on Allegheny Avenue and 25th Street.Read moreMAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer

The number of people living in hunger in Philadelphia has increased by 22 percent at the same time that hunger has diminished throughout America.

That finding, from a report being released Monday by Hunger Free America, a New York-based nonprofit, is the latest example of how Philadelphia diverges from the national mainstream on issues of poverty.

Based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the report found that in the 2015-17 time period, 302,685 Philadelphia residents, or 18.3 percent of the population, lived in households that the federal government designates as food insecure. That's a measure of hunger meaning that people didn't have enough food in the course of a year to lead a healthy lifestyle.

In the 2012-14 period, there were 248,046 Philadelphians living in hunger, or 16.7 percent.

Nationwide, food insecurity numbers were moving in the opposite direction: They dropped from 15.7 percent between 2012 and 2014, to 11.1 percent in the 2015-17 period, according to the report.

"While Philadelphia originally led the nation in freedom … a city … with so many residents unable to afford a full supply of food isn't truly free," said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, in a statement included in the report.

The hunger numbers reflect an overarching level of hardship in Philadelphia that is out of step with national trends.

For example, while census figures show that the U.S. poverty rate dropped from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent from 2016 to 2017, the poverty rate in Philadelphia remained static at 25.7 percent during both years. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of the nation's 10 most populous cities.

Philadelphia saw a drop in its median income: from $41,449 in 2016 to $39,759 in 2017. For the nation overall, the median income rose during that same period, from $57,617 to $59,039, federal figures show.

It is "the bare issue" of  Philadelphia's high rate of poverty that accounts for its higher rates of hunger, Berg said in an interview.

Berg added that to end hunger, food-insecure families in Philadelphia would need an additional $158 million per year.

Because President Trump is looking to cut funding to food stamps, it's inconceivable that the federal government will be augmenting budgets to feed people in hunger any time soon, Berg added. And, he said, no local charity could ever supply such a massive annual outlay year after year.

"The focus, then, should be on creating jobs, raising wages, and ensuring an adequate safety net," Berg said.

Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance, the region's largest anti-hunger agency, said Hunger Free America's new numbers are "devastating." But, he added, they're not surprising.

He said the city needs not just more food, but a coordinated effort to raise people out of misery, offering "better-paying jobs, access to health care, financial assistance, education, and other social services that help alleviate the root causes of hunger."

Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, also said it wasn't shocking that food insecurity has gone up, "given that housing prices have skyrocketed, and that people at the bottom aren't earning any more money.

"Overall, we haven't moved the needle on poverty."

At Devereux United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia, where Thelma Kennerly runs a feeding program, the Hunger Free America report simply reflects what she sees every day.

"On Labor Day, I served 25 people, but yesterday, I saw 56," she said. "A lot of places that feed people in North Philadelphia are seeing an increase in need."

Kennerly is unsure why she's seeing more hungry people at her door.

"I don't question," she said. "I just feed them."

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at