Antipoverty advocates displeased by Nutter's new hunger-fighter

Mary Horstmann , 28, will lead city's efforts.
Mary Horstmann , 28, will lead city's efforts.
Posted: August 08, 2011

Last year, Mayor Nutter said he would establish a high-level position in his administration to battle hunger.

The job he created isn't precisely what was promised, according to antipoverty advocates in the city.

Now a controversy is brewing between city officials and advocates who must continue to work together to battle poverty in the poorest big city in America.

Rather than create a powerful antihunger czar, as advocates believed he would do, Nutter added hunger-battling duties to an already existing antipoverty job within his administration.

A young deputy policy director with little antipoverty experience was named to the post. Mary Horstmann, 28, began work last week.

"I don't think this is a failure to live up to the mayor's commitment," said Nan Feyler, chief of staff of the city Department of Public Health. "This is a first step within the antihunger agenda."

Horstmann acknowledged in an interview that battling hunger would be part of her job, but not her core mission.

"Hunger is the symptom of larger issues and you can't address it unless you look at jobs, education, housing access, and other issues," said Horstmann, who lives in South Philadelphia and who has worked for the city for more than three years.

Nutter said last fall he was inspired to create an antihunger position after a series of Inquirer articles detailed how Kensington, North Philadelphia, and other city neighborhoods are among the hungriest places in the United States.

Depending on the estimate, between 22 percent and 36 percent of the city's population is "food insecure" - meaning that during the year, they run out of money to buy enough food.

At that time, Nutter said the person in the job "would have significant responsibility and be empowered to get things done." He added that he hoped he could fund the position with private-sector donations.

No such money was forthcoming, Feyler said.

Regardless, Nutter said in a statement last week, the city would attack hunger "at its root causes."

"The Mayor's Office is . . . committed to a holistic approach, looking at poverty through a wide lens," Nutter's statement read.

He noted that Horstmann reports directly to his chief of staff, Suzanne Biemiller, and will work with other city agencies and private and nonprofit partners "to enhance the administration's effort to fight poverty, increase human capital, and alleviate hunger."

Nutter's plan doesn't sit well with Mariana Chilton, a professor in the Drexel University School of Public Health, and the area's leading expert on hunger.

Nutter had asked Chilton to design the antihunger job for the city. She said her suggestions did not appear to have been followed.

"The city has thus far shown very little commitment to demonstrate that they are fighting hunger," said Chilton, who is often called on to testify about hunger in Congress. "The mayor has done nothing, from my perspective."

Chilton said Horstmann appeared to be "far too inexperienced for the type of hard work ahead," acknowledging, however, that she had not met the mayor's pick.

Jonathan Stein, a longtime antipoverty advocate and attorney for Community Legal Services, added, "The appointment does not meet the high expectations we had from the initial announcement. It's disappointing."

Chilton said Nutter had led her to believe he would create a position for "someone high up in the Mayor's Office" to fight hunger, establish benchmarks to track progress, and to develop an antihunger model for the rest of the nation.

Part of the job, as Chilton described it, included attracting as much federal funding to battle hunger as possible; increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially for children; making sure the emergency system of food pantries is working properly; and having hospitals monitor hunger and make sure people had access to food stamps.

Additionally, Chilton said, the so-called director of food security would have the influence and gravitas to create hunger-fighting coalitions among such disparate entities as Aramark, the food services company, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and her own School of Public Health.

What Nutter came up with falls short of those goals, Chilton said.

Defending the administration, Feyler countered that the city, especially the Health Department, was making great strides in dealing with hunger and obesity, which is related to a lack of healthful food choices among the poor.

 Chilton said her displeasure was not about "wanting to see [my] little ideas initiated."

"The mayor doesn't have hungry people walking into his office every day like I do," Chilton said. "I'm the one dealing with the families who are hungry."


Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "The Joint Custodian," at www.philly.com/jointcustodian.

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