For the first time in anyone's memory, Philadelphia's antihunger advocates have banded together to call on federal, state and city officials to end hunger.
Advocates gathered yesterday at a West Philadelphia food cupboard to outline policies that they say would, if enacted, end food insecurity - the lack of access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life.
Proposed steps include urging the federal government to pass a strong federal nutrition bill to benefit breakfast and lunch programs, as well as programs for women, infants and children.
Local hunger fighters are buoyed by the election of a president who vows to end childhood hunger within six years - and chagrined by a dismal economy that is putting even people with jobs at risk of hunger.
What matters today more than ever before is the pooling of ideas and efforts, advocates said.
"This is the first time we have had this wide a range of people at the table," said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program.
Wynn said several antihunger advocates have been meeting with Nutter administration officials regularly since the fall.
"There's a commitment for the first time ever from a Philadelphia mayor to work with people on hunger," she added. "And that's a huge first step."
Although no one is expecting huge amounts of money from the budget-strapped city, advocates said the administration could help in different ways.
One is to establish a formal mechanism to measure hunger in the city through annual monitoring and reporting.
Another is to continue to educate people about food stamps. Some 100,000 Philadelphians are eligible for food stamps but do not claim them, Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said yesterday at the Fresh Start food cupboard.
It's a commonly held belief among hunger advocates that, aside from employment in a job that pays a living wage, nothing can help a person struggling with hunger more effectively than food stamps.
Part of the advocates' suggested policy platform is to have the state Department of Public Welfare raise the gross income limit for food-stamp benefits (also known as SNAP) from 130 percent of the federal poverty line to 160 percent.
A family of four at around 130 percent of the FPL makes $28,196 annually.
This boost would help thousands of families struggling with the high costs of child care and rent or mortgage payments, said Rachel Meeks, food-stamp expert with the Coalition.
So it was with true worry that the hunger fighters who gathered yesterday noted that in the economic-stimulus bills being considered by Congress, the Senate version contains $3.5 billion less for food stamps than that of the House of Representatives - $16.5 billion vs. $20 billion.
Also troubling to advocates was the difference in aid to states - $79 billion in the House bill but just $39 billion in the Senate version.
With less money for states, welfare departments that administer food-stamp programs would be forced to slash their workforces that process food stamps. Such cuts would render any increase in food stamps meaningless, advocates say.
Meanwhile, the people on the front lines of hunger are seeing conditions deteriorate daily for Philadelphians.
"Food demand skyrocketed 30 percent this year over last," said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief organization in the region. "There are new kinds of people getting aid - working families."
Then there are what Clark calls the "silent unemployed." These are people working their old jobs at newly reduced hours.
"Being paid for four to five fewer hours a day is the difference between having enough food and not," Clark added.
Adding poignancy to yesterday's presentation, North Philadelphia resident Angela Sutton, 32, a mother of two and a full-time student, talked about the lack of nutrition in her children's meals.
Sutton is part of the Witnesses to Hunger project by Drexel University's School of Public Health, in which professor Mariana Chilton gave digital cameras to 40 women, including Sutton, and asked them to chronicle their worlds.
"I'm stuck choosing between survival and healthfulness for my children," Sutton said, explaining that it's simpler to buy inexpensive foods that don't deliver nutrients.
"I can buy white bread at $3 a loaf, not wheat bread at $4," she said. "The white bread blows up my kids' stomachs, making them feel full. But I don't want to feed them just anything.
"White bread kills the hunger, but it's not bringing the best out of my children," who need nutritious foods to thrive, she said.