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  • Writer's pictureThe Philadelphia Inquirer

What is food insecurity? How Philly navigates hunger, food deserts, and access to good food.

Across the Philly region, one out of every 10 households doesn’t have access to affordable, healthy food on a consistent basis.

People shop at the Feast of Justice food pantry in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Food prices have risen so dramatically due to inflation that people who haven't used food pantries for help are now having to go back.
People shop at the Feast of Justice food pantry in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Food prices have risen so dramatically due to inflation that people who haven't used food pantries for help are now having to go back. 📷: HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Published Aug 8, 2022 in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Brenda Washington can remember standing in a “surplus food” line back in the 1960s as a teen with her family. Now, as the director of community services for The North Church, she and her staff of volunteers serve nearly 300 North Philly residents nutritious food and produce each week.

“There are a lot of issues [surrounding food insecurity] and there’s no easy or quick answer,” said Washington. “We’ve been dealing with this for how long? When I was growing up I stood in line — we got surplus cheese, dry milk and food, it kept our family fed.”

In Chinatown, Rosaline Yang, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation’s (PCDC) operations manager, sees an increased number of residents attending the organization’s weekly food pantry hours, from 200 people per week upon launch in August 2020 to around 600 people each week now.

“Chinatown was fortunate. It’s more affordable... because of the small businesses here,” said Yang. “But with COVID-19 and inflation, even Chinatown is being affected — a lot of items that used to be pretty affordable are getting more expensive, staples in Asian cuisine like rice and tofu.”

But why is food access a problem in the U.S.? After all, there’s enough food produced each year — around 4 billion metric tons worth — to feed everyone on the planet, according to the United Nations.

However, almost one-third of that food goes to waste each year.

In terms of access, high-quality foods and fresh produce can be too expensive or in stores too far away for many Americans. And food that is readily available and affordable isn’t always healthy — which leads to chronic health issues down the road.

Across the Philly region, one out of every 10 households doesn’t have access to affordable, healthy food on a consistent basis, according to 2020 data. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers these households “food insecure.

Key takeaways

  • Almost 250,000 people in Philly lack access to nutritious food to live a healthy life.

  • Food insecurity is more complex than being physically hungry. Access to nutritious food impacts mental health, brain development, and physical and financial well-being.

  • The lack of access to nutritious food is caused by poverty and systemic racism.

  • To address food insecurity, you have to address poverty and the economic systems that isolate certain populations from access to resources — like quality food.

  • Philly responds to food insecurity through federal cash assistance programs, food distribution systems, and community-led farms, gardens, and refrigerators.

What is food insecurity?

A household is food insecure when it doesn’t have access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all its members. This is defined by the USDA and is used as a measurement by researchers, policy makers, and food relief services to analyze access to food across the country. Nearly 250,000 people are considered food insecure in Philly.

Food insecurity is more complex than simply not having grocery stores close by. People often live in areas with an abundance of grocery stores (both Washington and Yang’s communities have quality grocery stores close by), but that doesn’t mean they’re affordable for most.

The main drivers of food insecurity in the U.S. and Philadelphia are poverty and systemic racism that create a lack of access to affordable housing, health care, education, and employment for certain neighborhoods and populations. All of these factors lead to a cycle of people living in poverty and not having access to adequate food throughout life, according to Mariana Chilton, director of Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and researcher on food insecurity.

“[Children experiencing food insecurity] don’t do well in school and by the time they get to high school, they’re likely to have major problems,” said Chilton. “Which affects their economic well-being later on in life because you can’t make enough money, you didn’t have a good education, and might not get paid as well, etc.”

“By the time you become a parent yourself, you can be way behind, deeply poor, and struggling to feed your child — and it continues all over again,” she said.

Philly’s food insecurity:

Chilton says that household food insecurity won’t be solved with food itself. Food insecurity is an issue based on economics and discriminatory systems that isolate neighborhoods and its population from the finances and resources needed to access nutritious food.

“Philadelphia has a long history of redlining that keeps people out of certain neighborhoods and a very organized disinvestment in other neighborhoods,” she said.

The USDA considers neighborhoods with low income and low access to food as “food deserts.”

What is a food desert?

Food deserts are neighborhoods where residents have low-income and don’t have access to affordable, nutritious foods, as defined by the USDA. This is often because there are no affordable grocery stores, or residents in the area don’t have transportation to get to one.

In Philadelphia, there are more stores that sell foods high in calories, fat, sugars, and salt than there are grocery stores that sell affordable produce and other nutrient-dense foods — regardless of income, race or neighborhood.

This creates a situation where many people turn to eat more processed food, according to Hans Kersten, pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and food insecurity researcher. While these foods make you feel “full”, over time eating these foods can lead to chronic health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 Diabetes.

“Food insecurity is really just one symptom of living in poverty,” said Kersten. “Where can you buy the most food for the least amount of money? Oftentimes, that’s fast food. Those foods are not as healthy for you as fresh fruits and vegetables.”

How does food insecurity happen?

Not naturally, that’s for sure. This is the reason why some food activists don’t use the term “food desert” — which likens food insecurity to a naturally-occurring ecosystem. Instead, advocates use terms like “food apartheid” or “food segregation” to describe the organized disinvestment that creates a lack of access to nutritious food in certain neighborhoods. In the same way redlining denies mortgages to Black and Latino homebuyers and discourages financial investment into their neighborhoods (which still occurs today), food segregation works similarly in that those predominantly-Black and Latino neighborhoods don’t see investment in quality grocery stores or education, housing, and better paying jobs to afford nutritious food.

“It’s a massive social injustice and oppression that happens in our society that people are born into poverty and can’t get out of poverty,” Chilton said. “It’s the way people treat each other and hoard money, power, resources, and land that lead to food insecurity.”

How do we respond to food insecurity in Philly?

There are government programs that try to address food insecurity through providing money to families to pay for food or supply food distribution systems with nutritious food. Communities also respond through growing their own food in urban farms and gardens, as well as create networks of food pantries and fridges to share free food.

SNAP and WIC provide direct financial assistance to eligible families to help pay for nutritious foods. More than half of all infants in the U.S. receive assistance through WIC benefits and these programs actually save taxpayer money on healthcare and other expenditures.

These programs do have limitations. According to families interviewed by Drexel University researchers, SNAP benefits run out in the third week of each month for many. When this happens, parents on SNAP consider skipping meals, eating less healthy foods, or choosing to pay their bills instead of buy food. Families also need to live below the poverty line to receive benefits, meaning if they want to continue receiving benefits their income will have to remain below the poverty line, according to Chilton.

Between exhausting public benefits, cutting coupons, and going to multiple stores to get the best deals, families still need help — even families that live above the poverty line, according to Pastor Tricia Neale, executive director of Feasts of Justice, which currently serves 550 families in Mayfair each week.

“We’re seeing a lot more individuals disclosing a higher income but still aren’t able to make it,” said Neale. “They’re not even close to the poverty line, but we’ve got families who are still needing this resource because they’ve just found that their other expenses are more than what their incomes can handle.”

That’s where food banks and food pantries come in. Food banks, like Philabundance and the Share Food Program, supply several hundred pantries, schools, and community centers across the city with nutritious food each week. Food pantries, like The North Church or PCDC distribute that food and make partnerships with other local food providers to meet the needs of their community. You can see a full list of food pantries across the city.

Community-led initiatives, like gardens, farms, and refrigerators provide fresh produce and share free food with residents in their neighborhood. These initiatives also strengthen community bonds and educate the wider public about food insecurity, green spaces and mental health, and farming.

Here’s where you can learn more about them:

Community Fridges in Philadelphia

Most of the community fridges and pantries shown here are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and allow anyone with extra food to donate it directly, or anyone who needs food to take it.

Click on the map for more information.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at

Expert sources:

  • Brenda Washington, Director of Community Services, The North Church

  • Rosaline Yang, Operations Manager and Youth Coordinator, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation

  • Mariana Chilton, Director of Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Drexel University

  • Hans Kersten, Pediatrician, St. Christopher's Hospital for Children

  • Pastor Tricia Neale, Executive Director, Feasts of Justice

  • Judith Levine, Poverty Researcher and Professor, Temple University

Henry Savage on Twitter I'm the civics reporter for the service journalism team. I write how-tos and resource guides to help you navigate the city and get things done.


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