This post is part of a larger series.
In this post I’d like to focus on access to healthy, affordable food. In general, Philadelphia has a high level of food insecurity when compared to the rest of the nation, and particular areas of Philadelphia are especially hard-hit.
In many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, there are few or no options for healthy food. The only choices within reach tend to be corner stores, which sell things like chips and soda, often at higher prices. There is an especially high shortage of fresh produce in Philadelphia, particularly in neighborhoods with lower incomes. Additionally, since many children rely on free meals at school, there is a significant increase in food insecurity each summer.
First, let’s take a look at the data. According to Feeding America, one of the largest food security advocacy and research organizations in the US, 327,320 Philadelphians were food-insecure in 2016. That is 21% of the population. The USDA defines food insecurity as, “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”
We can get an even more detailed picture of who is hungry in Philadelphia from a variety of other sources. First, the City Health Data Dashboard, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and several other partners, shows a breakdown by census tract. They determine food insecurity slightly differently—by living more than half a mile to the nearest grocery store.
Next, a source from the USDA shows several similar indicators. Below are census tracts with more than 100 households who live more than half a mile from a grocery store, are low-income, and do not have a car.
Next, I’ve taken data from the American Community Survey. The only information I could find was about the number of households receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, which are the largest form of food assistance Americans receive. SNAP works as a monthly debit account that can only be spent on food. While not a perfect indicator, this gives a large amount of insight into where the highest level of food insecurity is in the city.
Of course, the gap this leaves out is that there could be households with a high level of need, but who are not receiving any benefits. This map below (final one, I promise) is an excellent resource that fills in that gap. It is from the City of Philadelphia’s Public Health Department, and it shows block-level areas with high poverty rates and low to no healthy food access. I highly recommend following the link to explore this map, since it’s so detailed. However, if you cannot for whatever reason, here are pictures of the map, including the whole city and major sections.
Among all of these sources, some key conclusions emerge.
First, the level of need is high in Philadelphia compared the roughly 13% rate of food insecurity in the country. This is likely due to Philadelphia’s high poverty rate. Only the deep southern states have counties that parallel Philadelphia’s rate.
Second, as always, the level of need within the city varies dramatically. Large chunks of North Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, and the southwestern portion of South Philadelphia have the highest rates of food insecurity. In contrast, almost no blocks in the well-to-do areas, such as Center City, are suffering from food insecurity.
Third, there is food insecurity dotted throughout most of the city. While there is a clear neighborhood trend, food insecurity is much more of a patchwork than a clear dividing line.
In researching this topic, I also found out that there is a tremendous amount of support for households facing food insecurity. For instance, the School District of Philadelphia, as of 2014, offers free breakfast and lunch for all students, no questions asked. It also offers after-school meals for many students. Outside of this, several nonprofits offer a wide array of food services. In 2017, the Coalition Against Hunger distributed 182,000 pounds of food across 100 sites. Philabundance and its member agencies distributed 24 million pounds of food. Similarly, Share Food Program distributed 27 million pounds of food in the greater region. Other organizations, such as The Food Trust, Greensgrow, and Hunger-Free PA do an immense amount of work increasing access to SNAP, improving food options, influencing the food supply chain, connecting people to resources, and much more. Speaking of SNAP, this program supports a huge amount of people in the city, with 134,145 households relying on this monthly benefit as of 2017 (22.1% of the population!). And, there is encouraging evidence that the food insecurity issue has improved in the past several years. This report from the City of Philadelphia shows minor improvements in food access since 2010 across all neighborhoods.
Despite these encouraging signs, it is important to keep focusing on this topic and increasing access to healthy food for all. There are still 400,000 Philadelphians who face tough choices every day between putting food on the table, paying the bills, making the rent on time, filling prescriptions, and so on.
Not all of the people who are food-insecure are going hungry. However, all of the people living in the regions outlined above do lack access to healthy, affordable food. This is important from a public health perspective. If the only options for food locally are unhealthy snacks, then it is no wonder that there are such immense health issues disproportionately affecting those areas. I explored health disparities in another post, and it is clear that the neighborhoods with the least healthy food access are also the neighborhoods that have the highest rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. We should treat the problem of food access not only as an emergency scenario where people need nourishment, but also as a public health crisis affecting neighborhoods already experiencing immense disadvantage. Healthy food access is just one more interrelated element of this disadvantage.
Currently, where you live and the economic status of your parents determines the quality and quantity of food you have access to. While there have been great strides, much more needs to be done to ensure that all neighborhoods and all people have grocery stores that sell healthy, affordable food well within reach. Nobody in Philadelphia should go hungry, and, even further, nobody should lack access to healthy, affordable food.