Some nights, Melanie Hudson lies in bed and prays for sleep to overtake her before the belly pain and headache from not eating enough become so overwhelming that they keep her awake till the morning alarm.
“I’m living my life right by society’s standards,” said Hudson, a mother and a widow with a college degree who makes around $12,000 annually working full time for the Upper Darby school district. “But it’s hard to be poor and hungry.”
Hudson, 47, is one of hundreds of thousands of people represented in a startling new study that shows that while hunger has decreased throughout America in the last six years, the number of people who can’t afford enough food in Philadelphia and the surrounding region has gone up.
The report is based on federal data analyzed by Hunger Free America, a national nonprofit in New York that advocates for the food insecure — people with insufficient money for food.
Between 2014 and 2016, according to the report, 301,781 Philadelphia residents (19.3 percent) lived in food-insecure households. The report averages food insecurity in three-year increments for greater accuracy.
In contrast, between 2011 and 2013, the data showed, 238,447, or 15.4 percent of Philadelphians were food insecure.
And in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the number of people dealing with hunger rose from 608,005 to 730,886 between 2011 and 2016. The metropolitan area takes in the city, its suburban counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as small parts of Delaware and Maryland.
Meanwhile, in that same six-year period, the report found, the percentage of people living in food-insecure households across the United States decreased from 14.6 percent to 13 percent.
This means that while hunger lessened throughout the rest of the country after the recession, which lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, conditions worsened in the Philadelphia region, according to Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America.
“Philadelphia’s high poverty rate [26 percent] is a primary reason,” Berg said. “This is a striking problem.”
For Hudson, a life of hunger seemed unimaginable not long ago.
She and her husband, Clifton, who worked in security, had enough to support themselves and their daughter, Veronica, now 18 and a freshman at Widener University.
But Clifton died of a brain aneurysm nine years ago. Now, Hudson must pay $615 in rent for her one-bedroom apartment in Upper Darby, not including utilities. She also has a monthly payment of $165 for a modest Chevy Cruz. Hudson is also being treated for glaucoma, and is in danger of losing her sight in one eye.
Veronica lives on campus and recently got a part-time job. She relies on a scholarship to get by.
As a personal-care assistant who works with autistic and disabled children in Upper Darby, “you wouldn’t think I’d be food-insecure,” Hudson said. “It’s because of my low salary, not because of a lack of work or a desire to move forward in the American dream.”
Too frequently, there isn’t enough money for electricity, which has been shut off on occasion. “I need a roof and a car to work, and I rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “Sometimes, I just don’t eat. It’s rough.”
Making matters worse, Hudson, who receives some food stamps, often endures cycles of starving herself then gorging. This happens when she runs out of cash and benefits toward the end of the month and stops eating, then gets more money at the beginning of the month and overeats. Or, she’ll eat cheap food high in fat and calories. Doctors who have studied the poor say it’s a common phenomenon.
Sometimes, people who live through such cycles gain weight.
“I’m not a size zero, and people look at me and ask, ‘How are you hungry?’ Hudson said. “I’m bingeing and starving and I feel like a loser, basically. It messes with my mind.”
It’s not just adults who do not have enough to eat. The Hunger Free America study dovetails with research on childhood hunger by Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and a professor of health management and policy at the School of Public Health at Drexel University.
That work, reported in the Inquirer and Daily News in September, showed that between 2006 and 2016, childhood hunger in North Philadelphia more than tripled among families where parents work 20 or more hours a week. The food-insecurity rate was 9.7 percent in Philadelphia last year, compared with 8.8 percent for children nationwide.
Philadelphia has long been the poorest of the 10 most-populous U.S. cities.
Among other obstacles, people here must deal with high rents and low wages, said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
“The challenges for Philadelphians, we say, are heat-eat-treat,” she said, referencing the often too-expensive priorities people must finance of living in a safe, warm place; accessing enough food; and having sufficient health care.
To help the region’s poor, Fisher said, we need more “investments in more job training and creating jobs with livable wages — along with transportation assistance for people who live in the city and work in the suburbs.”
That hunger is on the rise here is a sad and stubborn fact well known at Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief organization.
The amount of food Philabundance has distributed to its 357 pantries and other partner agencies has increased from 24 million pounds to 25 million pounds in the last year, said spokeswoman Samantha Retamar.
One such pantry, Upper Room Baptist Church in West Oak Lane, has seen the number of patrons grow from 400 people a week last year, to 500 this year, according to Michael Bennett, director of food programs.
“Working people need food because the stores are expensive,” he said. “And lots of seniors are feeding themselves and their grandchildren. Once they get their Social Security check and pay their rent and utilities, they just don’t have enough for food.
“So they have to live hungry. Like too many people do.”