In 1942, as World War II food rationing ramped up and grocery shelves emptied, M.F.K. Fisher wrote a wry, practical little book called How to Cook a Wolf. The wolf she meant was the one at the door—and with tips for frugal dishes and a chapter titled, with grim determination, “How to Keep Alive,” Fisher helped wartime Americans unite in facing the realities of food insecurity together. “Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck,” she wrote.
Walk the abundant halls of the Reading Terminal Market or browse the bounty of the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the wolf has long since abandoned Philadelphia. The ingenuity of chefs and mixologists and food-truck operators has brought us into the ranks of America’s best food cities, to hear the Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Zagat and many others tell it; gourmets, vegans, and gluten-free paleo dieters all find plenty of options here. Yet, amid all this culinary innovation, a staggering one-fourth of Philadelphians struggle with hunger and food insecurity, according to the Hunger Coalition.
The wolf is at the doors of too many rowhouses—but this wolf is a different species than the one that stalked the city during World War II. For one thing, war rationing was more or less universal; the sacrifice was by no means equal, but it was certainly shared. Today, though, income inequality has skyrocketed—greater Philadelphia is now the nation’s second most unequal urban area, according to a 2015 study. Luxury and poverty exist side by side here.
What’s more, wartime cooks could easily buy or grow produce—what they lacked was “luxury” items like butter, sugar, and meat. Today’s food system is industrial, on the other hand. Mass-produced foods, their taste bulked up with fat, salt, sugar, and artificial flavorings, are now what’s cheap—and, in much of the city, far easier to buy than fresh, unprocessed foods. You can find bagged snacks, fast food, and microwaveable meals at every corner store, but for many residents—especially those who rely on public transit—grocery stores are hard to come by, let alone the butchers, bakers, and produce stands that were neighborhood staples in Fisher’s day. Areas with low supermarket access—sometimes called “food deserts”—still dot the city map; statewide; more than two million Pennsylvanians lack access to fresh food.
At Fat Mom’s Luncheonette, in a low-supermarket-access section of Port Richmond, a few green peppers, bananas, onions, tomatoes and peppers is offered alongside the deli meats. What doesn’t sell is used to make prepared food in the kitchen, and prices are high enough (potatoes are $1.25 each!) and selection small enough to deter all but a few neighbors in need.
Residents aren’t just dealing with out-of-reach stores and rising prices—they’re also struggling to work multiple jobs or patch “gig economy” work together, find reliable and affordable child care, and obtain housing with adequate kitchen facilities. All of that has a big impact on what and whether families cook. Yet, too often, the serious health problems that come with a lack of access to healthy food are framed in terms of individual decisions; low-income people just need to “make responsible choices,” we’re told. This sort of paternalistic head-patting was, for example, a common argument in favor of the economically regressive soda tax, which targets soda rather than the sugary beverages preferred by middle-class consumers.
Developers often operate on a similar logic—assuming, for instance, that grocery stores in low-income areas won’t be profitable because residents won’t buy fresh foods. That’s wrong, according to Julia Koprak, senior associate at the Food Trust, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve food access in Philadelphia, including working to locate grocery stores and farmers’ markets in neighborhoods that need them and partnering with government food assistance programs to provide farmers’ market access and cooking classes. While there isn’t much hard data, she says, “What we hear anecdotally is from grocers in underserved areas is that their produce sales are comparable to or above sales in suburban areas. There’s a myth that people won’t buy fruits and vegetables, but if you listen to the community about their needs and offer a range of foods that’s affordable and culturally appropriate, people absolutely do buy and cook those foods.”
The Food Trust and several other groups have recently brought health care providers and educators into the process. St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children has doctors write prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables; patients and community members with SNAP benefits can also sign up for the Farms to Families program, which provides low-cost weekly produce boxes year-round. In the Philadelphia Public Schools, nutrition educators visit classrooms to conduct fruit and vegetable tastings as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a USDA federal program being piloted in several states. Elementary-aged kids try new foods, learn about nutrition, and receive recipes to take home.
Much progress was made between 2004 and 2010 under the auspices of the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, an innovative Pennsylvania state program that made grants to retailers of all sizes. As well as helping to open new stores, including the Fresh Grocer on North Broad and the ShopRite on Parkside Avenue, the program’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative brought refrigerators and fresh produce to more than 600 corner stores around the city, so the staples of healthy meals are offered alongside the usual chips and cigarettes. Renewing FFFI would go a long way toward continuing to address what is still a serious problem, says Koprak.
It’s hard to track the impact of such programs on adults’ health outcomes, Koprak says, because disease rates change slowly. Children’s health, on the other hand, can be tracked more quickly. “One thing we’ve seen that’s pretty major is a reduction in childhood obesity in Philadelphia by five percent,” she adds, citing a study by the city’s Department of Public Health over five years of FFFI progress.
“To assert and reassert our dignity in the face of poverty,” as Fisher put it, “is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment.” Most people want to eat well, given the chance—so before you criticize your neighbors, ask how you can help expand access to fresh food everywhere in the city.