Five million children in our country are food insecure. Nearly 450,000 of them live in Pennsylvania, where they far too often wake up hungry, go to school hungry, and go to sleep hungry. For too many, hunger is an anchor that traumatizes individuals, families, and even whole neighborhoods.
COVID-era programs and support systems that families rely on are expiring. In March, 16 million households across the country saw their SNAP benefits, which provide monthly funds for people to purchase the food they need, decrease from 30% to 40%. In Pennsylvania, that meant an average reduction of $174 per month for enrolled households. Families who relied on this support to keep their children fed are now left wondering where their next meals will come from.
Nearly 23% of Philadelphians live in poverty, twice the national average, and even prior to the pandemic, more than 18% of Philadelphians were food insecure. Philadelphia recently finished a monthslong mayor’s race in which every candidate talked about ways to decrease violence in the city; well, studies have found positive correlations between hunger and violent crime rates. Addressing food insecurity is one way—and a relatively inexpensive way—to make our city safer.
How can we expect students to focus on school or our workforce to achieve their full potential on an empty stomach? A 2017 study from Georgetown University and the University of Virginia found that children’s learning outcomes suffer when those children regularly experience hunger. In a 2021 study, it was found that hunger and food insecurity can have negative effects on concentration, memory, mood, and motor skills. While addressing food insecurity may not solve everything, it opens the door for other interventions to be more effective.
Since 2020, I have served as board chair of the Share Food Program, which nourishes 305,000 kids at 800 schools through the National School Lunch Program, as well as 7,500 seniors through the Senior Food Box Program—a more than 100% increase since the start of 2022.
Our organization also keeps the region’s vulnerable individuals fed through its vast network of more than 400 community-facing pantries and partner agencies, on-site farms, and food rescue and redistribution. This food comes from government partners, supermarkets, wholesalers, restaurants, farms, and food drives—it truly takes a village. In addition, Share has just launched its Campaign for Food Justice, a $35 million campaign to transform its Philadelphia headquarters and revolutionize the way we fight food insecurity.
But nonprofits like us can’t do it alone. Since taking office, Gov. Josh Shapiro has also demonstrated an impressive commitment to ending hunger in Pennsylvania. In his first budget, he’s proposed continuing to fund the commonwealth’s Universal Free Breakfast Program for 1.7 million kids, as well as the subsidized and free school lunch program. He’s also asked for a new investment in SNAP to raise the minimum monthly benefit by 50% to help the people relying on this safety net to feed themselves and their families. This will help narrow the gap that COVID widened.
But there’s still so much work to do.
For many, hunger is a constant struggle, and while no one person can fix our city’s food insecurity crisis, together, we can make a difference.
The only way to a stronger, safer, and healthier city is together. Philadelphia can be a national model in eliminating hunger—and the individual, family, and neighborhood traumas that too often accompany it, as long as we all do our part.
Tracey Specter is the board chair of The Share Food Program.