It started as a simple school project.
Laura Rathsmill had already been gathering information about local food insecurity before the pandemic hit. Then her research became much more valuable as businesses shut down and unemployment rates skyrocketed.
Suddenly, people were scrambling to find food for their families.
“Originally, we had to do a project about food insecurity in our community and I had just moved to South Philly so I wanted to do that,” Rathsmill said. “Then COVID-19 happened, so there became a special focus on food insecurity during COVID and how our communities are responding.”
Rathsmill, who studies social work as a graduate student at Widener University, compiled a comprehensive list of free food resources in South Philadelphia and created an interactive map through BatchGeo to help residents find those critical resources in the most convenient fashion.
The 28-year-old East Passyunk resident applied it to the 19145, 19146, 19147, and 19148 ZIP codes of South Philly. The map includes descriptions of each site, which populations they serve, addresses, hours of operations and other important information.
She used listings from the city’s website and added other sites, which included nonprofits and churches that she found through her own research from reading local stories.
“I used the city website (www.phila.gov/food) and just started digging around looking at local papers like the South Philly Review and found out the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging was doing programs,” Rathsmill said. “I called them, and they would tell me about other places. I just dug around a lot in local papers and media sites, and that’s how I found out about the extra things.”
Rathsmill submitted her project on Friday and is still awaiting what will likely be an “A”. But despite the school work being finished, she plans to continue to update her interactive map to help local residents continue to find food.
“I definitely plan to keep it up to date,” Rathsmill said. “I would really hate for someone to use my resource and show up at a place that changed their hours or something. I definitely don’t want that on my conscience.”
According to Rathsmill’s research, she said the top four industries that employ residents in her East Passyunk neighborhood are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. It includes food service, healthcare and social assistance, retail and manufacturing, making up 44 percent of the neighborhood’s population.
Even before the pandemic, one out of five people in Philadelphia were food insecure and many were not eligible for nutritional programs. Many more fall into that category now.
Although Rathsmill’s project put all the information in one place, she printed out fliers for those without internet and began distributing them around South Philly. Even if people already know where the closest food site is, they might be able to find a more convenient one with shorter lines that is close by.
“I’ve been reading about how the lines are around the block for city food sites,” she said. “I know SEAMAAC’s site opens at 10 a.m. and goes to 12 and they have a line around the block at 8:30 a.m. People are getting there an hour and a half early and it’s already super crowded. I know it’s pretty intense right now.”
Rathsmill’s project has helped her narrow down her future path in social work.
“It’s pretty empowering,” she said. “For social work, I always thought I wanted to be a therapist, but dipping my toe more into community organizing is making me realize it can be a lot of fun and you can see more of an immediate impact.”
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To view the map, go to: https://batchgeo.com/map/a13874ac2735552a23c3281ed4314ebc