For more than three decades, Philabundance, the largest hunger relief organization in the Delaware Valley, has been feeding thousands of food-insecure individuals across nine counties. Distributing more than 20 million pounds of food last year, the South Philly-based operation, along with its member agencies, helps to feed 90,000 people a week in New Jersey and Pennsylvania – all in strides to end hunger today.
Recently, though, Philabundance is reexamining this objective, considering how to end hunger tomorrow.
Expanding its mission, the organization is now gradually shifting its purpose from simply satisfying hunger with one meal but rather tackle social determinants factored into a systemic problem affecting nearly 20 percent of Philadelphia residents.
As Philabundance marks its 35th year under new leadership, the charity is fostering a comprehensive initiative that not only includes distributing 50 million pounds of food per year by 2023 but addresses the breadth of elements encompassed in the equation of food insecurity.
“If you think about giving someone a fish or teaching them to fish – now, we’ve been giving and giving and giving fish,” said Sara Hertz, the organization’s new chief development officer. “And we still have one out of every five Philadelphians are food insecure.”
In South Philadelphia alone, including the 19145, 19146, 19147 and 19148 ZIP codes, the food insecurity rate ranges from 8.6 percent in the Queen Village neighborhood to 42.2 percent in the Grays Ferry neighborhood, according to data provided by Philabundance.
Hertz, who has collected 30 years of nonprofit experience, was recently brought onto the Philabundance team to help secure its already 45,000 individual donors and 350 partners, according to Philabundance staff, while also expanding these numbers in efforts to reach the colossal goals, which the team is calling “Food Plus.”
Considering the “plus” or supplement factors of hunger, a cornerstone aspect of the initiative includes Philabundance’s recent partnership with local organizations to establish six-week courses throughout the Delaware Valley.
The classes will educate individuals on a various economic, health and social topics, with concerns ranging from managing debt to finding health care. Each course session, which includes childcare and free meals, will feature financial literacy coaching and case management component guidance.
Funded by the HealthSpark Foundation, Philabundance teamed up with Habitat For Humanity of Montgomery and Delaware Counties and the Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities in February to spark a pilot program. During weekly courses in Pottstown, seven families are experiencing financial literacy coaching and case management on issues such as housing.
“When you look at ending hunger long term, you can’t just address food,” said Pennsport resident Stef Arck-Baynes, director of communications at Philabundance. “You’re never going to get to that ‘ending hunger for good’ without addressing these other areas of critical services. This is really that point where providing food is good, and it’s needed, but it’s not enough.”
Throughout the next year, Philabundance hopes to see similar programs pop up around the region, including a few in Philadelphia. Locations can include hospitals, universities or housing services and, ideally, the topic of the courses will reflect the respective entities.
The staff is considering holding courses at the Philabundance Community Kitchen, located in the organization’s North Philadelphia warehouse. The Philabundance staff says a brand new building in that location will break ground in April and open early next year. The space will be specifically designated for the PCK operation.
The nearly 20-year-old Philabundance Community Kitchen is a 14-week culinary vocational training program working to transform the lives of low-income individuals. Through the 500-hour program, students earn their ServSafe certificate, have internship opportunities in the culinary industry, prepare meals for those in need and receive retention services by PCK staff for two years after graduation, according to the Philabundance website.
“There’s lots of interest to work with food, because if you don’t have food, the rest of it kind of doesn’t matter,” said chief impact officer Melanie Cataldi, who has worked with Philabundance for 19 years. “The education isn’t going to matter if you’re hungry…It’s always more than one challenge, and if you don’t do anything together, it’s not going to fix anything long term, which is why we haven’t been fixing the problem.”
Fostering a sense of self-sufficiency, the PCK program was Philabundance’s infancy step toward ending hungering indefinitely close to two decades ago.
“That’s really our goal – for people to be self-sufficient and not need our assistance and put ourselves out of business,” Arck-Baynes said.
Philabundance estimates that throughout the nine counties it serves, approximately 700,000 people go to bed each night either not having had a meal or not knowing where their next meal is coming from or if they’re going to have a meal at all.
Through its regular outreach, including 19 distribution fresh food distributions, with one located at Front and Tasker streets, the organization feeds approximately 90,000 of the 700,000 per week, estimating that 30 percent of this figure includes children and 16 percent are seniors.
“The gap is big,” Cataldi said. “So, even if we double the amount of food we distribute at 50 million pounds, there’s still gonna be a gap.”
The staff stresses that climbing to 50 million pounds of food per year by 2023 involves increasing the number of volunteers and partnerships and ultimately expanding its more than 40,000 donors.
In South Philadelphia alone, including the 19145, 19146, 19147 and 19148 ZIP codes, 6,491 donors have given to the organization since its inception, according to Philabundance.
Along with the guidance of Hertz, co-founder of the Ambler Farmer’s Market and a current elected member of Ambler Borough Council, Philabundance also recently assembled a diverse team of 2019 Board of Directors, including John Ruane of Giant Food Stores, Anika Hawkins of 6ABC and Bassam Awadalla of Bank of America.
Meal by meal and course by course, Philabundance feels determined about its latest massive undertaking, striving to not only educate and serve the hungry but to enlighten everyone on the realities and complexities of food insecurity.
“If we can really get that story out and get people to understand the risks of not feeding people, of letting people continue to go hungry, we’re all going to be paying for it in the end…food is a human right,” Cataldi said. “People have a right to eat healthy food that they choose.”
To learn about how you can help, visit www.philabundance.org.