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Hunger grips Pa.’s First District, report finds

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer

A new report that astonished even experts on hunger shows that half of all households with children in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District can’t always afford to buy enough food.

The district – which includes Kensington, parts of North and South Philadelphia, and Chester – is the second-hungriest place for families in the United States, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the leading antihunger nonprofit in the nation.

The report seems to establish Philadelphia as a locus of American poverty. With an overall poverty rate of 25 percent, Philadelphia is the poorest big city (population over one million) in the country.

And the FRAC report shows that high levels of hunger are very much a part of life here.

Only Florida’s 17th Congressional District, which includes parts of Broward and Dade Counties, is hungrier – and not by much. While 49.6 percent of households with children suffer from hunger in the First Congressional District, it’s 50.4 percent in the 17th.

The FRAC report, released Thursday, analyzes data from a survey of more than one million people conducted over three years by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index project. The poll is among the largest ever taken.

FRAC has released previous reports on hunger, but this is its first focusing on children.

The news comes at a time when the House of Representatives has voted to cut $127 billion from the food-stamp program, as well as $733 million from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program to ensure proper nutrition for poor mothers and their children.

The First District is represented by Democrat Bob Brady, who said FRAC had “issued a grave reminder of the toll hunger is having on our nation’s families.”

Referencing proposed cuts to food stamps and WIC, Brady said in an e-mail, “The safety net is being shredded by reckless legislation. People need jobs so they can feed their families. And it’s important to note that spending for social programs did not create a deficit, and cutting spending for these programs won’t bring us out of it.”

Jim Weill, FRAC’s president, echoed Brady’s remarks.

“These particularly terrible numbers are driven by decades of failure to create enough jobs with good wages, at the same time that government is eroding supports for the poor,” Weill said.

He said there were 81 U.S. districts where at least 30 percent of the households with children have food hardship – the inability to afford enough food.

Mariana Chilton of Drexel University’s School of Public Health said, “I’m more than surprised, I’m devastated.”

Added Chilton, the area’s leading expert on hunger: “The magnitude of this issue is worse than I have been able to track in my research.”

Referencing Philadelphia’s reputation as a “meds and eds” mecca – renowned for its top medical-research and higher-education institutions – Chilton added, “How can we have that distinguishing factor when our children are hungry? There’s something wrong with that.”

Carey Morgan, head of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said, “Politicians need to . . . start talking about the millions of . . . children who don’t have enough to eat right now.”

She said hunger makes it impossible for children to learn in school and reach their potential.

To determine rates of hunger, survey participants were asked, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

Throughout America, 23 percent of households with children answered yes. In Pennsylvania, it was nearly 22 percent, and in New Jersey, the figure was around 19 percent.

The FRAC report confirms the kind of struggles that many people in Philadelphia live with each day.

Barbie Izquierdo, 23, a single mother of two children, said the FRAC rate of nearly 50 percent hunger for families in the city seemed accurate, based on what she sees in the streets and in her own home.

“It’s one of the worst feelings in the world to not be able to feed your kids,” said Izquierdo, who works for the Coalition Against Hunger but is paid about $28,000 annually. “A mother is supposed to be a nurturer and a provider, but no matter how hard you try, you still come up short.”

Saying she wants to do better for her children, Izquierdo will study criminal justice at the Community College of Philadelphia in the fall, to ultimately become a criminal psychologist.

Philadelphia’s ignoble distinction as a center of hunger and poverty affects every resident, Chilton said.

“It’s everybody’s problem,” she said. “Everybody has to take ownership of this issue. We’ve all stopped paying attention to the well-being of children in a devastating way.”

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