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Taming Hunger: How Philadelphians can survive in food deserts

Among fast-food chains and corner stores, Philly still ranks high in food insecurity.

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Food insecurity aid remains a top priority for federal leaders and local organizations alike, with research on regional food deserts not accurately proving accessibility.

Philadelphia saw an increase of food insecurity due to the pandemic. Additional obstacles did not permit families to receive fresh produce, and the issue, although slightly relaxed, is still a cause for concern.

Kate Scully, chief external affairs officer at Philabundance, spoke with AL DÍA to discuss the numbers and explain how the organization has adjusted outreach efforts in 2021.

“We find that the stats are not always accurate. There may be a corner store on paper, but is it really welcoming and accessible, or have the nutritious food people need?,” asked Scully.

Food deserts, Scully says, is just one part of targeting the issue. It is equally important to focus on areas identified as “food apartheids” where communities of color receive even less access to supermarkets or healthy food options.

The City of Philadelphia tracks all the food distribution sites established throughout the region. Yet, these places can be limited in travel to certain neighborhoods, and not be the quickest choice for some.

The Gehl Project

Philabundance sought the support of Gehl, an urban design and research consultancy, in 2020 to better understand the county’s low-access to produce neighborhoods.

The report lasted a year with team members scouting communities in North Philly that have historically experienced food insecurity. They found that personal safety, outdated bus stops, environmental challenges like a lack of shade, and store appearances, were all factors to people’s needs not being met.

In addition, the research showed that these communities may have a limited source of fresh produce as corner stores face “infrastrastructure constraints” to carry those items.

From the collaboration, Philabundance strategized ways to better serve the community by providing outdoor distribution and a tailored grocery shopping experience.

“Our agency partners helped to move distribution outside and create grocery store-like environments known as a choice model,” said Scully. “People were able to walk in and select the things they wanted, rather than get items pre-bagged.” 

Food banks receive federal grants

On Dec. 9, Philabundance received $156,000 in federal funding as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that will give Pennsylvania $11.4 million to support cold storage at local food banks.

“Our food banks have developed deep partnerships with Pennsylvania farmers and processors to increase our healthy and nutritious food inventory and this investment makes doing even more of that food sourcing possible,” said Jane Clements, chief executive officer at Feeding Pennsylvania.

Prior to receiving the grant, Philabundance has committed up to $5 million to partnering agencies to have more refrigeration capacity at their location, and they secured produce vans to assist transport.

In the last year, Philabundance has boosted their food distribution from 26,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds.

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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