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Community Health Data Base
An Information Service of the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation

Hunger and Food Availability in Southeastern Pennsylvania
Friday. October 1, 2004


Hunger is a well-documented problem in Philadelphia and across the Southeastern Pennsylvania region.  As a result, several Community Health Data Base affiliates, such as the Hunger Coalition and Food Trust, are currently working to help eliminate hunger in the region.  But in addition to hunger, there are many other issues emerging in the health field related to nutrition and food availability.

Many families in the region do not have access to affordable and nutritious foods in their neighborhoods and therefore often have poor nutrition and eating habits.  In order to further understand this problem, the Community Health Data Base has added questions to the 2004 Household Health Survey to explore nutrition and food availability across the region.  Using data from the Community Health Data Base’s 2002 Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey, the following article analyzes current data on hunger and offers a look at the new nutrition and food related questions in the 2004 Household Health Survey.

Hunger in Southeastern Pennsylvania:

  • In Southeastern Pennsylvania, 7.8% of adults report that they have cut meals in the past year due to lack of money.  This projects to 225,500 adults in the region.
  • Approximately 4.6% or 133,100 adults in SEPA have not eaten because they could not afford food, yet only one out of three of these adults report that they received food from a shelter, soup kitchen or food pantry (32.5%).
  • In total, 121,200 adults in the region received free food from a shelter, soup kitchen, or food pantry in the past year.
  • Adults in Philadelphia are more likely to have cut meals or not eaten because they could not afford food than adults in the suburbs.  In Philadelphia, 11.2% of adults report that they have cut their meals due to lack of money and 6.5% have not eaten because they could not afford food. (See Figure 1)
  • African American and Hispanic adults are more likely to have cut back their meals or have not eaten due to lack of money than White adults.   For example, 13.1% of African American adults and 16.9% of Hispanic adults report that they have cut back their meals within the past year, as compared to only 6% of White adults. (See Figure 2)
  • Nearly one out of four poor(1) adults report that they have cut their meals due to lack of money (23.8%).  Additionally, 16% report that they have not eaten due to lack of money and 19.2% have used food shelters.
  • In SEPA, 5.9% of adults receive food stamps.  This projects to approximately 168,700 adults in the region who receive this form of assistance.
  • In Philadelphia, 11.5% of adults receive food stamps compared to 2.4% of adults in the suburban counties.  (See Figure 3)
  • Approximately 3.3% or 95,800 SEPA residents receive assistance from the WIC Program (Women, Infant and Children Food Supplement).

As can be seen from the findings reported above, there are many adults in the region who have had to limit their meals or did not eat in the past year due to financial constraints.  And while they only account for 7.8% of the adult population, there are even more adults and families in the region who have had to make poor food choices due to lack of money. 

Lack of financial resources can have a large impact on the nutrition and eating habits of adults and children in the region.  With a limited food budget, many families cannot afford to buy healthy foods, and instead have to buy the most inexpensive, and often least healthy foods.  In addition, many poorer neighborhoods, especially in Philadelphia, do not have grocery stores or have poor quality grocery stores with primarily unhealthy food options, which can also promote poor eating habits.

As obesity rates increase among adults and children, nutrition and food availability have become two emergent health issues facing the nation and the Southeastern Pennsylvania region.  In order to explore the epidemic of obesity and poor nutrition, the Community Health Data Base has included new questions in the 2004 Household Health Survey about nutrition, fast food consumption and food availability.

Nutrition and Food Availability:

The 2004 survey, which will be released in December, now includes additional questions about nutrition, food consumption, and access to healthy foods.  These questions include:

  • Nutrition:  In previous survey years, the Household Health Survey included a question for adults about daily intake of fruits and vegetables.  In 2004, this question was asked for children as well.  In addition, questions were added about the availability of fruits and vegetables in one’s neighborhood.
  • Fast Food Consumption:  For both adults and children, the survey now includes questions about how many times in the past week respondents ate food from a fast food restaurant or from a local take-out shop.
  • Food Availability:  The survey also includes new questions about the quality and availability of grocery stores in the respondent’s neighborhood.  Respondents are asked to rate the quality of groceries available to them in their neighborhood and also if they have to travel outside of their neighborhood to go to a grocery store.

Related to these questions, the Household Health Survey already has information on exercise, obesity, being advised by one’s doctor about losing weight or exercising, and other new variables for children such as screen-time and participation in athletics.  With these new questions, it will be possible to better understand the eating habits and the causes of poor nutrition and hopefully provide new answers for promoting healthier choices and better nutrition among Southeastern Pennsylvania residents. 

For information regarding PHMC’s Community Health Data Base 2002 Household Health Survey, or to learn more about hunger and food availability in Southeastern Pennsylvania, contact Diana Levengood, at (215) 731-2039 or

1.  Poor is defined as living below 100% of the federal poverty level.

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