Alicia Victoria Lozano

The High Cost of Being Broke: Fighting ‘Quiet Hunger' in Every Philadelphia Zip Code

Food insecurity plagues more than 20 percent of people in Philadelphia and more than 1.6 million people across Pennsylvania.

What to Know

  • Food insecurity plagues more than 20 percent of people in Philadelphia and more than 1.6 million people across Pennsylvania.
  • People facing food insecurity also have higher instances of chronic diseases caused by unhealthy diets.
  • Philabundance is attempting to curb some of this need and introduce healthier diets to food insecure families.

This article is part of the High Cost of Being Broke series, produced by Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic justice. To see all the #HighCost stories, please visit the Broke in Philly site.

Every week, 70-year-old Delfina Martinez climbs into her daughter's minivan and the two women hunt for North Philadelphia's cheapest groceries.

Both agree that The Richmond Shops IGA on Aramingo Avenue provides the best bargain after factoring time in traffic, cost of gas and quality of food.

Wherever there is a deal, Martinez and her daughter said they'll find it. This is the high cost of being broke: The ingenuity and time required to find every possible discount that could make the difference between enjoying a meal and paying the bills.

Martinez estimates that she spends about $160 each trip to feed herself, her two granddaughters, three dogs and a cat. Her Social Security benefits barely cover her bills, so Martinez works as a seamstress on the side, she said.

“Sometimes it’s … hard to spend money,” Martinez told NBC10. “The food is a little expensive, but you have to eat. I don’t have much left over.”

In constant fear of foreclosure, Martinez checks in regularly with utility companies when she can’t pay a bill on time and works with the city to pay off property taxes, she said. Martinez worries that she will lose her home if she doesn't keep officials informed of her precarious income.

“It’s poor people living in the neighborhood and they’re trying to bring in the rich people,” Martinez said.

Her 47-year-old daughter, Marlene Cruz, pulls up the minivan and loads the three shopping carts of food accumulated between the two women. Both Martinez and Cruz live closer to Lehigh Avenue, but they drive down to the IGA off York Street because “the deli meat is better.”

“I’ve been seeing the prices go up for quite a while," Cruz said, "but I’ve shopped everywhere from Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s to Shop Rite to this store.” 

The national monthly average cost of a "thrifty meal plan" for a family of four is $692 and $866 for a "low cost meal plan", according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cruz spends roughly $360 every week-and-a-half for herself, her husband and their youngest daughter, she said.

As the mother and daughter team know well, food costs can vary widely depending on where you shop and when. Nowhere in Philadelphia is the disparate cost of food more evident than in this zip code, 19125, where Fishtown's trendy restaurants give way to Kensington's homeless encampments in a mere span of blocks. 

Between those extremes live thousands of residents hovering in the midst of food insecurity. They are not necessarily unemployed or starving, but some days they are hungry.

Food insecurity plagues more than 20 percent of people in Philadelphia and more than 1.6 million people across Pennsylvania, according to a 2017 report by Feeding America. The hardest-hit local neighborhoods include West Philly, Southwest Philly, North Philly and portions of the Northeast, where the food insecurity rate is more than 30 percent, according to the report.

But even in newly hip areas, such as Fishtown, food insecurity rates do not drop below 10 percent.

See Where Food Insecurity Is Worst

“A lot of people don't want to admit they are hungry or need assistance,” Stefanie Arck-Baynes from Philabundance said. “It’s a quiet hunger.”

Martinez and Cruz embark on the kind of bargain hunting that is only accessible to those who own a car. But just several blocks away from IGA, Joan Righder is limited to walking.

Righder, who turns 82 years old this week, considers herself lucky to live a few doors down from Garrison’s Market near York and Memphis streets. Like many people her age, Righder lives on a fixed income and puts away most of her monthly Social Security check to pay bills. She purchased her home 40 years ago for $20,000 at a foreclosure sale and is thankful for that security, at least.

Still, Righder relies on Garrison’s to feed her.

“They don’t charge me much because they know I don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “I’ll never starve because, whatever I need, they always got me.”

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Garrison’s is the kind of place where customers on foot can sometimes hitch a ride home with Greg Garrison or his son, Brett. The corner market has been in their family since 1915 when their forebearer, Bill, bought it from the previous owner. Bill Garrison had been taken out of Horatio B. Hackett School at the age of 10 to help feed his family. By the time he was 19, he was a shop owner.

When 34-year-old Brett Garrison started pitching in at his family’s store, most meals were cooked at home and small markets dotted the largely working class Fishtown neighborhood, he said. Many shops, Garrison’s included, offered credit lines so customers could settle food tabs on payday instead of having to choose between bills and dinner.

These days, however, habits and incomes have changed, he said. Garrison estimates that around 20 percent of his customers use their monthly SNAP benefits at the store.

“It’s like anything - you really get what you pay for,” he said. “You can buy [unhealthy food] for cheap, but it comes with long-term costs, like ... getting diabetes.”

Researchers largely agree.

The 2014 Hunger in America national survey by Feeding America found that people facing food insecurity also have higher instances of chronic diseases caused by unhealthy diets.

More than 55 percent of households who use Feeding America food banks reported having at least one family member with high blood pressure while 33 percent had at least one member with diabetes, according to the report. The survey also found that of the families helped annually by Feeding America agencies, approximately 80 percent turned to “inexpensive, unhealthy food to feed their family.”

By contrast, just 23 percent of families reported growing their own vegetables to save on food cost.

“A lot of people, when they think food insecure, they think skinny,” Sara Goldfrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, said. “But they miss that food insecurity is associated with obesity. Your body changes when you’re not getting what you need.”

Recent research shows that hunger can also negatively impact cognitive and biological functions, especially in young people. Hungry students report difficulty focusing at school and staying awake in class.

But food insecurity is much less obvious and should not be confused with hunger, Goldrick-Rab added.

“If you skip breakfast every day, you get used to it. When you get used to being hungry, maybe you can function on some reasonable level,” she said.

For years, Philabundance has attempted to quell some of the city's food needs. It is the largest hunger relief agency in the Delaware Valley and partners with some 350 organizations across nine counties. Their efforts include food pantries, meal deliveries and produce distribution. Roughly 90,000 people are fed each week through Philabundance agencies, according to Arck-Baynes.

Some of those people are in unexpected neighborhoods, like Ardmore.

"You have no idea what's inside those homes … especially people who fall ill, who get divorced, who have a medical emergency,” she said. “It’s in every zip code.”

One of Philabundance’s partners is just down the street from Joan Righder’s home, but she gets most of her food either from Garrison’s or Fishtown Market down the block. Neither establishment is known for selling fresh produce, however.

Her diet largely consists of milk, cereal, cakes and beef, she said.

“They’re good to me,” Righder said of Garrison’s deli. “If I need something, they say ‘Here. Just take it.’”

NBC10 and Telemundo 62 are among the news organizations in our area that are looking into the causes and effects of what it means to be broke in Philly. One problem that’s a bigger issue in Philadelphia than the rest of the country is food insecurity. That means a person or family can’t always afford the food they need.
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