Food insecurity, which according to the USDA is “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food,” has long been known to have adverse health consequences. But in January the federal government began rolling out restrictions on its nutrition assistance program across 23 states, including Pennsylvania.
The changes are expected to affect up to 1 million people, according to The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. However, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger is working to decrease food insecurity in Pennsylvania by making sure everyone who is eligible for the federal program is aware of its benefits.
According to Feeding America, a national network of food banks, food insecurity affects 32.8 million adults and 15.3 million children annually, and a growing body of research documents the impact food security has on the population.
A seminal study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2011 found that there is a strong association between food insecurity and cardiovascular risk factors. Beyond the physical effects to which food insecurity is linked, there are also countless cognitive and psychological effects. According to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Mental health problems in mothers and children are more common when mothers are food insecure, a stressor that can be potentially addressed by social policy.”
One of the federal government’s most straightforward ways of addressing barriers that low-income people face in securing enough healthy food is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This government benefit program acts as cash assistance specifically for the purchasing of food to help low-income households ensure a more nutritious diet by increasing food-purchasing power.
SNAP participants have better self-reported health than non-participants, have roughly three fewer sick days per year than non-participants, and have one or two fewer doctor visits per year than non-participants, according to a study published in 2015 by Food Policy.
However, about 159,000 Philadelphians qualify for SNAP and do not participate in the program. The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger has helped residents of Philadelphia and surrounding counties access nutritional assistance since 1996. It works at the grass-roots level, canvassing within neighborhoods, enrolling low-income people in SNAP, connecting them with other food resources within their reach and educating residents about nutrition while empowering them with tools to thrive.
“SNAP and other vital nutrition programs help families and seniors put food on the table every day, but there are still so many people who don’t know they qualify or aren’t sure where to go for help,” said Julie Zaebst, former policy manager for the coalition.
From 2011 to 2014, the coalition worked to address food scarcity and hunger from the grass-roots to the policy level with its ‘Fighting Hunger Block by Block’ campaign. It helped enroll low-income households in SNAP and also connected them with food pantries and markets providing fresh and affordable food as well as nutrition education.
“With ‘Block by Block,’ our goal is to ensure that every community member knows that help is here for anyone who needs it. Just as important, we want them to share this knowledge with their neighbors, family members, co-workers and classmates,” Zaebst said.
Since 2014, the coalition has expanded on the campaign to tackle more recent issues for SNAP qualifiers and participants– in particular, the recent changes to SNAP guidelines which limit Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) to receive just three months of benefits every three years. While these changes will not affect Philadelphia and Delaware counties in the short term, due to high unemployment rates, the coalition is preparing to meet the coming challenges in surrounding counties with its three-pronged approach: connecting people with SNAP and other food resources, supporting local feeding programs, and proactive advocacy and education.
The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger’s action plan includes the development and distribution of Senior Hunger Toolkits for providers in the community, clarifying the impact of SNAP eligibility guidelines for ABAWDs, and advocating for passing a state budget that protects food assistance programs.
A webinar detailing recent changes to SNAP can be found on the coalition’s website.
Jennifer Ginsberg graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work from The Catholic University of America in 2011. She has since worked with NGOs in Quito Ecuador and in the Takeo Province of Cambodia. She also ran a nonprofit case management and community support program in Washington DC. At present, she is a full-time student in Penn’s Nonprofit Leadership program and a practicum associate at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.