Hungry to Help
Three decades after its inception as a nonprofit food bank, Philabundance has evolved to combat an adaptable and persistent enemy
by Walter Ault

Philabundance just might be the perfect embodiment of the ideals underpinning the City of Brotherly Love. Staffed by a group of compassionate individuals, who are assisted by an even larger group of likeminded volunteers and member agencies, Philabundance has spent the past three decades working to alleviate two pervasive problems that have been plaguing the Greater Philadelphia Area for generations: hunger and malnutrition.

Hunger—or “food insecurity,” as it’s known in the Philabundance lexicon—is by no means a new problem. The problem has been worsened by a still-troubled economy, exorbitant food prices and high levels of unemployment and homelessness. Approximately 900,000 people in Philadelphia and surrounding counties are presently struggling to get enough to eat, according to Philabundance data.

Hunger’s toll is much more severe than the pangs of an empty stomach, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Hungry people are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized and require longer in-patient stays; twice as likely to need mental health services; and at a significantly higher risk for obesity, because high-calorie options, such as salty snacks and carbonated soft drinks, are less expensive than healthier fresh foods. In addition, coalition data suggests hunger can affect a child’s ability to thrive, as a hungry child is 60 percent more likely to miss school and 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade than a child with food security. 

To combat this persistent enemy, Philabundance has had to grow along with the problem. From its humble beginnings in Roxborough in the early 1980s, Philabundance has become one of the largest food banks in the country, helping 75,000 needy people each week. In the past few years, the organization has distributed more than 30 million pounds of nutritious food annually throughout the nine counties it serves in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

“It’s a big job, but fortunately we have plenty of help, from caring individuals contributing their time and organizations—local government, restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores—donating both money and food,” says Lindsay Hughes, community relations manager for Philabundance, whose main Hunger Relief Center is based in South Philadelphia. “The generosity of the people in this area is totally amazing. They come through for us year after year.”

Local contributions, in fact, account for the overwhelming majority of Philabundance’s funds. The organization gets only 1 percent of its revenue from the federal government.

“We currently have 17,000 volunteers, 13 trucks for pickup and delivery and over 500 member agencies scattered throughout our coverage area,” Hughes says. “This is our 30th anniversary, and we are proud of the way we’ve grown and of the large number of people we help.”

Interestingly, Philabundance helps in ways other than picking up and delivering food.

“There is a lot of work involved in what we do, and Philabundance helps in multiple ways,” says Liz Peteraf, an administrator with Montgomery County Catholic Social Services, which runs a well-stocked cupboard in Norristown that serves approximately 500 families every month. “In some cases we pick up the food, with everything set up by Philabundance. Also, twice weekly Philabundance makes its own deliveries, bringing us about 1,000 pounds of food per week. Philabundance also helps by determining how much food we can move, does the paperwork involved and even does record keeping for the government,” in terms of tracking tax-deductible contributions for donors.

“Philabundance has been a godsend to us,” she continues. “It is a wonderful organization, and we have a great working relationship. If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t have the fresh food we need.”

Philabundance, which formally celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014, traces its roots to a determined woman named Pamela Rainey Lawler. In 1984, Rainey Lawler realized there were people in her neighborhood who were going hungry. Rainey Lawler, who was guided by the firm belief that no one in a country as prosperous as the United States should suffer from hunger, filled her station wagon with food from a nearby Acme supermarket and gave it to her needy neighbors. She also sought to address the issue of food waste, which, at the time, was rampant in Philadelphia’s many restaurants and supermarkets.

Of course, Rainey Lawler was immediately faced with the challenge of having to store and transport perishable foodstuffs. She got nine different agencies and businesses in the area to help her in her quest, and Philabundance was born. In 2005 Philabundance joined forces with the Greater Philadelphia Food Bank, and the organization has grown exponentially since then. In addition to needy residents in Philadelphia, Philabundance now serves those in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, as well as Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties across the river in New Jersey.

“We do a lot more than just food drives,” says Hughes. “For instance, we have a community kitchen in North Philadelphia where adults are trained in culinary skills and put together wholesome meals. From that one location, 350,000 meals a year are distributed.”

Other programs include Grocers Against Hunger, a collaboration that unites grocers throughout the Delaware Valley so they can work together in the fight against hunger; the Community Supplemental Food Program, an initiative that provides donated food to low-income seniors; Fresh For All, a traveling farmers market that provides access to fresh produce; Fare & Square, a nonprofit grocery store in Chester, which had been a so-called “food desert”; and KidsBites, a program that ensures that children and their in-need families have sufficient nutrition.

Although hunger will likely never be eradicated, organizations such as Philabundance continue to chip away at the problem. In the Greater Philadelphia Area, one wonders how many more people would go to bed hungry, or how many more children would have empty lunchboxes, if not for the initiatives one concerned citizen, equipped only with a station wagon full of groceries and the desire to ease the burden of her famished neighbors, set in motion more than 30 years ago.

A Heavy Burden
Hunger and malnutrition weigh heavily on the individual, yet they also take a toll on the collective. Hunger costs the state of Pennsylvania approximately $3.25 billion every year, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. This staggering amount includes:

* $2.4 billion for medical and mental health care, due to increases in illness and psychosocial dysfunction
* $517 million in costs for charities that work to relieve hunger
* $330 million in lost educational achievement and worker productivity