In North Philadelphia, the food insecurity rate has tripled in the past 10 years among children.
Researchers at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University have found that since 2006, food insecurity among children with parents who work at least 20 hours a week has tripled, said Mariana Chilton, a public health professor at Drexel and director of the center.
In 2005, researchers at the center began tracking food insecurity by surveying incoming patients at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children on Erie Avenue between Front Street and Whitaker Avenue.
On a national scale, food insecurity rates are getting better in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, food insecurity among children has declined from 11 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2016.
But across Philadelphia, food insecurity for children has risen from 4.6 percent in 2006 to 11.8 percent in 2016. And, for children with parents who work more than 20 hours per week, it has risen from about 3 percent to nearly 10 percent in that same time period.
In Philadelphia, 25 percent of people — or one in four individuals — are food insecure.
Alanna Bergman, an adjunct instructor and nurse practitioner at Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia, said she has witnessed the increase in food insecure people through her work in the Immunodeficiency Center.
Bergman, who had a baby a month ago, said she has been lucky not to have to worry about being able to feed her newborn. But she said some of the patients she sees struggle to provide food for their families.
“I see patients in North Philly where parents are making sacrifices, like not eating so their kids can eat, or they’re feeding them really low-quality food like stuff off the Dollar Menu because that’s all they can afford,” she added.
Bergman said she thinks schools are the most important place to start combating food insecurity. Children spend between six and seven hours at school each weekday, and many Philadelphia schools are responsible for providing at least one free meal to children per day.
David Cohen, the principal at Tanner G. Duckrey Elementary School on Diamond Street near 15th, agreed with Bergman’s point.
“Elementary schools definitely have a responsibility to feed children because if you’re hungry you really can’t concentrate,” Cohen said. “Even just being hungry, not starving, makes it incredibly hard to concentrate because all you can think about is food. So imagine that happening regularly.”
In 2016, 100 percent of Duckrey’s 699 students were eligible for and received free breakfast and lunch.
“If you’re sitting there with a growling stomach you can’t learn,” he said. “This school has a responsibility to provide the kids with breakfast and lunch. It’s a basic need.”
Many states are expanding their public school food programs to include breakfast, and some states even require it for all students. Breakfast programs, Cohen said, are a good example of how schools are changing their food policies.
“Breakfasts are done in the classrooms now, and I did that because when I had it in the cafeteria there was a stigma for students who came to breakfast to get the free food,” he said.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education professor, attributes some of the increasing food insecurity rate to low wages, unemployment and underemployment in the city.
“It’s been really clear to me that a lot of people and a lot of families in North Philadelphia are struggling without enough money,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Anybody who cares about living in a community that’s healthy and happy and productive has a responsibility.”