1 in 4 Philadelphians are Food Insecure

1 in 4 Philadelphians are Food Insecure

Food Insecurity in the United States & on College Campuses

By: Emily Taylor, One Step Away Staff

1.6 Million Pennsylvanians are Food Insecure

According to Feeding America’s 2017 “Map the Meal Gap” project, more than 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania suffer from food insecurity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Introduced in 2006 by the USDA, “food insecurity” attempted to distinguish “hunger,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, as a craving or urgent need for food or a specific nutrient, from the inability to consistently access or afford adequate food.

Annually, the USDA estimates that food insecurity affects 42 million people, 13 million who are children.  This means that 1 in 8 individuals and 1 in 6 children live in households without consistent access to adequate food.

Food insecurity exists in every county in America but differs based on communities and regions. Feeding America’s findings show that county food insecurity varies by geographic region and metropolitan status as well. Counties in the South have the highest average food-insecurity rate in the country (16.1%) relative to regional county averages in the West (13.7%), Midwest (12.1%), and Northeast (11.8%) regions.

Federal nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which serve 43 million Americans, act as the first line of defense against hunger.  But these programs use income to determine eligibility and not everyone who is food insecure is income-eligible to receive assistance. Using 2015 data from the USDA, Feeding America estimates that 26% of food-insecure individuals earn too much to qualify for most federal nutrition assistance programs, and 20% of food-insecure children live in ineligible households.

Pennsylvania’s food insecurity rate is 13.1%. Of the state’s 67 counties, three have a higher overall food insecurity rate: Forrest, Fayette, and Philadelphia, respectively.


325,940 Philadelphians are Food Insecure


PA’s largest food insecure county is Philadelphia, with a rate of 21% or 325,940 people. Meaning roughly 1 in 4 Philadelphians suffer from food insecurity. Philadelphia ranks 10th on Feeding America’s top 10 hungriest counties, behind Tarrant (Fort Worth), TX; Wayne (Detroit), MI; San Diego, CA; Dallas, TX; Maricopa (Phoenix), AZ; Cook (Chicago), IL; Harris (Houston), TX; New York, NY; and ranked first, Los Angeles, CA.

In 2005, Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities began Children’s Healthwatch, a network of pediatricians and public health researchers who monitor the health and well-being of children under the age of four. One of five cities involved, the Philadelphia site is located in St. Christopher’s Hospital in North Philadelphia and has interviewed more than 10,000 caregivers. Healthwatch provides the most current and largest information about food security and development of very young children living in poverty.

In 2016, Children’s HealthWatch Philadelphia found 1in 4 families reported household food insecurity, with 1 in 8 families reporting food insecurity among children. Their study showed over the past ten years showed household food insecurity nearly doubled, while child food insecurity has tripled.


The Cycle of Insecurity: Food, Energy, Housing


HealthWatch’s research shows young children who live in households experiencing food insecurity are more likely to: be in poor or fair health; experience problems with cognitive development; and exhibit behavioral and emotional problems.

In addition to lacking food, 1 in 3 families reported energy insecurity, or the lack of consistent access to sufficient heating or electricity to ensure healthy and safe conditions in the home. Without energy, families cannot store food in a refrigerator, or heat up food in the microwave or on a stove. Furthermore, Philadelphia HealthWatch studies showed that over 1 in 3 families experienced some form of housing insecurity, ranging from living in a crowded home to moving multiple times in one year. Housing conditions have a strong association with the health and well-being of families. Children living in substandard housing face increased exposure to lead and allergens, causing decreased health, and unforeseen expenses from doctors’ visits or missed work and school.


96.7% of Philadelphia County Students Are Enrolled for Free and Reduced Lunch


According to the 2016-2017 Pennsylvania Department of Education, 273 of the 306 Philadelphia County schools 100% of the students were enrolled in free school lunches. Combined, 96.7% of Philadelphia County school students were enrolled in either free or reduced lunch – totaling more than 180,000 students from Prekindergarten to twelfth grade.

Philabundance, local hunger relief organization, estimated that 6 of 7 children can go hungry during the summer or when school is not in session. And while government programs such as the National School Lunch Program, The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants & Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), offer nutrition assistance to low-income individuals and families, it is not enough.

To address local hunger issues organizations run food helplines, 1-800-319-FOOD for Philabundance and 215-430-0556 for The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. But Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and Children’s HealthWatch data still show large amounts of food insecurity throughout the region, with detrimental effects on children and development.

Recently Drexel University, Vetri Community Partnership, and the West Philadelphia community opened EAT (Everyone At the Table) Café on 38th Street & Lancaster Avenue, with a pay what you can model. Additionally, their Witness to Hunger project which documents real families experiencing hunger and poverty, reports four key ways to help.


How You can help From Drexel University Center for Hunger Free-Communities


  • Create a comprehensive national plan to end hunger – involving government, corporations, and the public.
  • Encourage employers to provide living wages and family-oriented labor policies.
  • Advocate restructuring government assistance programs to prevent people from cliff effect (being cut off of benefits too soon right after getting an increase in wages), allowing families to truly transition to self-sufficiency.
  • Demand a culture of respect and accountability in the human services sector so people can safely ask for help.


Tuition, Textbooks, or Food? The Cost of American Education


Tuition costs, room and board, textbooks, food. If you ask a student currently enrolled in college, or looking to make that next step, these are life necessities. Requirements to get a diploma – that piece of paper that says you made it.

However, with increased tuition rates, that piece of paper is costlier, and harder to obtain. Combine rising tuition rates, state disinvestment in tuition costs, and student loan debt; and college is unattainable for most Americans. The Institute for Higher Education Policy in March 2017, found that students from low- and moderate-income households could afford to pay for just 1 to 5% of colleges in the United States. The Federal Pell Grant, which in the past covered the full cost of attending community college, now covers about 60%. Unlike loans, the Pell Grant does not have to be repaid, except under certain circumstances such as withdrawing early from the program for which the grant was given, changing your enrollment status, or receiving outside scholarships or grants. The U.S. Department of Education awards Pell Grants to qualifying students, and amounts can change yearly. For 2017-18 the maximum Pell Grant award is $5,920.

Yet, students still aspire for future education. As they should, since 65% of the 55 million jobs produced in the coming decade will require some higher education or training, according to a 2013 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study.


2 in 3 College Students are Food Insecure


Even if you overcome most of these challenges and attend college, according to a recent report by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab surveying 33,000 students at 70 community colleges, over half (56%) of students identified as food insecure.

A 2010-11 study at the City University of New York forty percent of students reported having been hungry in the past 12 months. In 2012 and 2014, The University of California (UC), led by its president Janet Napolitano, surveyed its 150,000 undergraduates and found that 26% of students were skipping meals to save money.

Food insecurity is prevalent across college campuses, but until recently, was rarely discussed. On March 20, 2017, the United States Government Accountability Office announced that it would undertake the first-ever federal review of food insecurity in higher education. Past studies on nutrition and cognitive achievement measured middle or high school children, yet higher education was often overlooked.

Even more alarming, half of community college students indicate insecure living arrangements, with 35% of students reporting housing unaffordability and instability, and 14% of students reporting outright homelessness.


Five Policy Interventions to Solve the Problem of College Affordability from the Institute for High Education Policy (IHEP)


  1. Federal policy-makers should protect and strengthen the Pell Grant.
  2. States should strengthen direct investment in public colleges and need-based programs.
  3. Colleges should manage institutional costs to concentrate expenditure on students.
  4. Colleges with wealth at their disposal – either in the form of large endowments or company profits – should keep prices low for needy students.
  5. Congress should pass legislation to improve consumer information and transparency, giving students the information they need to make affordable choices.