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Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps to begin in Philly

By Alfred Lubrano
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Born into poverty in Colombia, John Lyons suffered from hunger and lack of nutrition before being adopted by a Maryland couple at age 2.

While he grew up without ill effects, Lyons, now 23, understood the suffering hunger brings. Today, he officially begins his new job, helping the needy obtain food stamps.

He’s one of 48 members of a first-of-its-kind national antihunger initiative that starts Thursday in Philadelphia.

The Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps, an AmeriCorps VISTA project, begins with an afternoon swearing-in ceremony at City Hall.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wal-Mart, the corps will help nonprofits sign people up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), among other duties.

“Low-income people face a tidal wave of pain, and the water is only rising,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which helped create the Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps. “The quickest way to help them is to get them on SNAP.”

Berg is a nationally known antihunger expert. AmeriCorps VISTA is the national service program designed specifically to fight poverty.

Berg said Philadelphia was chosen as the launch site in part because “it’s a great place to learn about hunger.” The First Congressional District, which includes much of the city, is the second-hungriest place in the United States, according to a national poll.

Corps members will be working at 30 sites in 18 states.

Funded for $1 million, the corps will pay members “a bit more than minimum wage,” Berg said. At the end of one year of service, members will receive a $5,500 “education award” to pay college expenses, he said.

Typically, members are young people with a desire to help others, he added.

“These personal issues got me interested in hunger and understanding why antihunger initiatives are crucial in people’s lives,” said Lyons, an economics and philosophy graduate of Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.

Because corps members must live in the community they serve, Lyons lives in a low-income neighborhood of West Philadelphia.

He, like other corps members, receives a little more than $1,000 a month for rent, food, and other expenses. At just 10 percent above the poverty line, Lyons himself must use food stamps.

“We’re encouraged to access them to learn what others have to go through,” he said.

The food-stamp outreach work the corps members will do is necessary because about two-thirds of Americans who are eligible for SNAP benefits receive them, Berg said.

In Pennsylvania, 74 percent of those eligible get food stamps; in New Jersey, it’s 54 percent, according to USDA figures.

Barriers to getting food stamps include the difficulty of applying for them, said Megan Kiesel, director of impact and outreach for the Campaign for Working Families.

Working parents often lose hours because they need to leave work to go to county assistance offices to apply, she said.

Also, many people incorrectly think they are not eligible for SNAP benefits, Kiesel said. And some are embarrassed to access the program.

“We want to build a network that helps people understand they’re eligible,” she added.

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