Fighting summer hunger block by block, lunch by lunch

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Nilsa Adorno, 30, of Franklinville, has neighborhood children form a line to eat free lunch supplied by the federal government and distributed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The meals make up for school lunches children miss during summer.

Padding quietly on pink and green flip-flops, a dozen children lined up for lunch near a white sidewalk tent set up outside a two-story rowhouse on Fifth Street in Franklinville.

Nilsa Adorno, 30, a quirky kind of urban guardian angel sporting tattoos, facial piercings, a Batman T-shirt, and black sunglasses adorned with white skulls, squirted a dollop of hand sanitizer into each tiny palm.

The children, many of whom live in poverty, displayed the unmistakable demeanor of the hungry: expectant, quiet, attentive.

“Their families have major problems feeding these kids in summer,” said Adorno, 30, a mother of five. “That’s why I’m here.”

Adorno is an unpaid neighborhood do-gooder whose partners are some powerful allies — the U.S. government and the Roman Catholic Church. She distributes free lunches and snacks to 35 children aged 1 to 16 every day during the summer. This is her second year on the job.

Every June, July, and August, the hot sun exposes a hard truth: Summer is the hungriest time of year, as parents have to scramble to feed children accustomed to receiving free breakfasts and lunches at school.

To try to fill the gap, the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the help of the state supplies food that’s distributed in the area by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as well as the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

To demonstrate the drop-off in feeding that occurs in the summer, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger measured lunch consumption during October and July 2017. In Philadelphia public and charter schools, around 130,000 free lunches were served per day in October; in July, 52,000 lunches were served per day at the city’s summer food sites.

That means that even with great efforts to feed children, just 40 percent of those receiving school lunch are reached in summer.

While there is much room for improvement, access to summer meals is better here than nationally or statewide, said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the coalition. Nationwide, just one in seven students who eat free lunch in school receives it during the summer (14 percent), while the figure is one in six (15 percent) in Pennsylvania, according to the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Archdiocese food gets delivered to 400 sites like Adorno’s in Philadelphia and its four suburban Pennsylvania counties every day. PHA feeds at 16 sites, while Parks and Recreation feeds at 500 individual city blocks as well as at 125 camps.

Block leaders like Adorno are trained by the archdiocese to set up a feeding site and to handle food.

The meals are cold and ready to be eaten by noon. This is the program’s first week, and the 45th year of its existence.

The other day, the kids were eating turkey with ham and pepperoni flavors, low-fat chocolate milk, potato salad, and apple slices. Popcorn chicken is a big favorite, as is barbecued chicken with cheese.

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“The sandwich is good,” said Anayalie Ramos, 10. “I don’t have to be in the house and Ma doesn’t have to cook for me.”

Roberto Rolon, 51, who brought his niece for lunch, said he likes how the program teaches children to share. “And it helps hunger,” he said, adding that he’d like to run a similar program on his block around the corner.

The Fifth Street moms and dads, many of whom come from Puerto Rico, will not acknowledge that anyone suffers from hunger. During a time when children are being taken from their mothers and fathers at the nation’s southern border, parents are worried that child services workers will remove kids from a house that doesn’t have enough food, hunger experts say.

Camera icon David Mailaletti / Staff Photographer
Neighborhood children pick through the lunch that Nilsa Adorno serves five days a week. The program is run through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and helps feed children when school is out.

The block’s parents allow their children to eat, mostly because Adorno, a freewheeling bohemian with a child’s sense of fun, is running the show.

“Oh, the parents love me,” said Adorno, who completed her third year of studying criminal psychology and forensics at Strayer University in Center City. She wants to be a probation officer and plans to get her master’s degree in psychology to work with released convicts. “They can’t get jobs, and they turn to suicide,” Adorno whispered, out of the children’s earshot.

She makes money giving people tattoos; her fiance works long hours landscaping.

Adorno acts like a kid herself, people say. They’ve seen her throw herself on the ground, hold sack races, pull a pool from her house and fill it with water.

“I’ll even do science projects with them,” Adorno said. “We make volcanoes, and do arts and crafts. When you’re here with me, I say to them, forget your worries.”

In Puerto Rico as a child, Adorno would watch her mother, a lunch worker, feed children.

“I’m second-generation doing this,” she said. “It feels good to feed them.”

When lunch was over, the children lingered, playing keep-away with a red ball. Adorno planned to go outside again at 3 p.m. to distribute snacks.

As the No. 47 bus roared by, the street shook. The busy thoroughfare has seen its share of violence and drug dealing, according to neighbors. Brooke Mullen, an assistant director at the archdiocese’s Nutritional Development Services, surveyed the scene, referencing the Bible:

“We call ourselves the loaves and fishes of the archdiocese,” she said. “And we always remember: Hunger never takes a break.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing “Broke in Philly,” a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow @BrokeInPhilly.