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Hunger haunts Philly. These are the voices of its pain

Need is great in the North Philadelphia area, where more than one in four say they don't have enough to eat.

Sister Margaret McKenna rests next to her garden at the New Jerusalem Now food pantry in North Philadelphia.
Sister Margaret McKenna rests next to her garden at the New Jerusalem Now food pantry in North Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The hungry haunt Philadelphia.

Because it isn't written on the body, hunger is not readily recognized here, the poorest of the ten most-populous cities in America, with a poverty rate of 26 percent.

But the need is overwhelming, demonstrated by the lines of people who gather every week outside the region's approximately 900 food cupboards.

Nowhere is that demand greater than in the North Philadelphia area, one of the hungriest places in America. Childhood hunger there tripled in 10 years, and only nine other communities in the United States utilize more food stamps, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Throughout America, 12 percent are food insecure — lacking enough food in a year to live healthy. In Philadelphia, that number is 21 percent. In North Philadelphia, it can run as high as 30 percent

Suffering from a lack of high-wage jobs, Philadelphia was one of the cities worst-hit by de-industrialization because it was once so successfully industrial, said Judith Levine, sociologist and poverty expert at Temple University. The resultant poverty exacerbated hunger, and even helped create the rampant opioid crisis in Kensington, scholars say.

Hunger fighters try to beat back the scourge, which has gripped thousands. Hunger, they say, hurts:

"You would kill somebody to eat," said William Dillahunty, 65, who lives along with a leg disability in North Philadelphia. "I'll walk around supermarkets pretending to shop, opening food packages, then eating away from the cameras.

"I don't feel bad at all. … Do or die."

What is it like to be hungry?

>>READ MORE: Hunger in Philadelphia increases while declining nationwide

"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 a food cupboard run by Sister Margaret McKenna on W. Norris St. 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."

As difficult as hunger is to bear, it gets worse toward the end of the month, when SNAP benefits run out, hunger fighters say. Mothers typically stop eating so their kids can.

"There's short patience by the 21st or so," said Thelma Kennerly, director of the food program at Devereux Methodist Church.

People who've worked all their lives but must go to cupboards for food feel demeaned. But, as one woman lining up for kale and corn said, "What choice do I have?"