'Survival Mode.' The excruciating challenge of being a high school athlete without enough to eat
Hunger Games: Food insecurity — not having enough food to eat — causes drastic and unhealthy coping solutions for many high school athletes in and around Philly. But many have overcome its consequences.
by Aaron Carter, Updated: November 9, 2019
His stomach was often empty. His body was always weary.
Tragedy, frustration, and pain had nearly cost Casey Williams his Division I football promise.
Yet he believed a college football scholarship meant a better life.
But to cope with pangs of hunger that made sleep improbable, Williams, a 2016 South Philadelphia High School graduate, exercised until exhaustion just so his beleaguered body could rest.
Greg Garrett, 46, current trainer of Philly-born NBA veterans Marcus and Markieff Morris, recalled he once ate gum off a sidewalk rather than walk the three miles to Sayre Junior High School on an empty stomach.
Food insecurity has caused high school athletes in the Philadelphia area to cope with hunger in drastic, often unhealthy ways for generations.
A federal government term, food insecurity is defined as “lacking consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life." It affected 37.2 million people, including 11 million children nationally in 2018, according to the most recent federal report.
New York-based nonprofit Hunger Free America reported that between 2015 and 2017 more than 176,000 children in the metropolitan Philadelphia area, including surrounding suburbs, lived in food-insecure homes. High school athletes in those households still competed for athletic scholarships that many believed would help them transcend poverty and despair, escape violence, further their education, and build a better future.
“Playing in college was a huge goal of mine,” said Williams, 22, now a redshirt sophomore defensive end at Stony Brook University. “But I never thought it would happen because my life was a lot of tragedy.”
Causes of food insecurity
A September report released by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed the city’s poverty rate dropped to its lowest levels since 2008 while median household incomes rose. Philadelphia, however, still has the highest rate of poverty among the 10 most populous U.S. cities.
A correlation between poverty and food insecurity certainly exists, says Kate Scully, director of government affairs at Philabundance, the area’s largest hunger-relief agency.
But, Scully adds, life above the poverty line alone does not preclude food insecurity. For a family of three in 2018, the federal poverty line was $20,780. Currently it is $21,330. Unexpected costs, she says, also send those living above the poverty level into Philabundance partner agencies in search of food.
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Food deserts (neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources), and food swamps (areas with an abundance of unhealthy food sources) are also factors in food access.
Still, recent national and local reports suggest food insecurity is on the decline. But antihunger advocates warn that continued Trump administration attempts to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (known as SNAP) could reverse that progress.
“Nearly half of the 40 million people getting SNAP in this country are children,” Scully said in a phone interview. She added later, "Any time you cut people off SNAP you’re also taking food out of their refrigerators, off their tables …”
How we reported this story
For more than a year, The Inquirer has examined food insecurity among high school athletes - past and present in and around Philadelphia - and the challenges it presents to athletes, parents, coaches, administrators and others.
In the weeks and months ahead, this series will reveal how high school athletes cope with food insecurity, some challenges it presents to girls in athletics, the potential temporary and long-term physiological effects boys and girls face, organizations that help, and more.
This first installment examines some causes of food insecurity, how young athletes cope, biological effects in behavior and performance, and some athletes who have excelled despite its considerable consequences.