Saying "sugar is the new street drug," a researcher who is an expert on the dearth of nutrition in low-income neighborhoods told an antihunger symposium in Philadelphia on Thursday that there are myriad health consequences for people living in so-called "food deserts."

Mari Gallagher, a Chicago public-health researcher, mapped Chicago neighborhoods to measure the distances residents had to travel to stores that stocked fresh produce and other healthful foods.

One conclusion she drew was that poor people "who cannot choose an apple as easily as a burger" invariably eat the foods closest to them, resulting in higher rates of diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.

"We are all really what we eat," Gallagher said at the first hunger symposium organized by Philabundance, the region's largest hunger-relief agency.

Gallagher praised Philabundance's efforts to build an "oasis" in one of this area's largest food deserts - Chester City, which has been without a full-service food market for 10 years.

Philabundance is creating a nonprofit supermarket that will offer free items, like a food pantry, along with low-priced staples.

It should be open within a year, said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, who is putting funding together for the project.

Clark was among those addressing an audience that included antihunger advocates and executives whose companies donate food and money to agencies like Philabundance.

He invoked the latest bad news about the poor, provided by the U.S. Census Bureau this month: In 2010, 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty, which represents 2.6 million more people than in 2009. That's a number "greater than the populations of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore combined," Clark said.

Others speakers included Lyn Kugel, a senior director of PathwaysPA, a social service agency in Holmes, Delaware County.

Citing the high costs of housing, food, and child care in the area, Kugel said a single parent with one school-age child and one preschool child would need to make $54,705 annually to live without using public assistance.

"That's startling," Kugel said, saying few single parents in the area make that much money.

Praising the resourcefulness of poor women who learn to shop, deal with public-assistance bureaucracy, and work when they can, Mariana Chilton of Drexel University's School of Public Health said she had seen the "fragility and grace" of mothers suffering from hunger.

Children without sufficient nutrition face developmental problems throughout life, said Chilton, a nationally recognized expert on hunger.

While the dramatic new numbers from the census depict working-class Americans newly fallen into poverty, it's important to remember the long-term poor, said Rachel Cooper, analyst with the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based antihunger advocacy group.

"People who've always been down are now down and out," Cooper said.

Deep poverty - defined as 50 percent of the poverty level of around $22,000 annually for a family of four - is persistent and growing, Chilton said.

Such deprivation creates depression in people, many of whom withdraw from their own children and have a harder time keeping jobs, she added.

Trying to balance the symposium's somber tone with positive news, Yael Lehmann, executive director of the nonprofit Food Trust in Philadelphia, said her organization now runs 26 farmers' markets in the area.

The Food Trust, which makes healthy food available throughout the region, also battles food deserts and tries to educate owners of corner stores in poor neighborhoods about the need to stock fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods.

Of course, said Elaine Waxman, a vice president of Feeding America, Philabundance's parent agency headquartered in Chicago, patrons frequenting farmers' markets for the first time may not recognize or know how to prepare fresh foods.

But she said that people are smart enough to learn, and to try to improve their lives in food deserts.

Injecting a tone of camaraderie among weary hunger-fighters, Clark said, "Together we can work toward a future where no man, woman, or child goes to be hungry."