She hungers for justice and nutritious food

Posted: August 31, 2012

The tomato defied reason.

Implausibly large and cartoonishly red, it had grown to stunning maturity in Hunting Park, of all places, risen out of hard urban dirt into the car-polluted sunshine.

"Beautiful," declared Steveanna Wynn, the woman whose strong will cut this farm into the city where she's been feeding the hungry for decades.

In a profession where people easily burn out, Wynn, 65, burns on, steady and bright.

She persists even now, the hardest time in her memory. Wynn and her colleagues deal with unemployment and a growing clamor to reduce governmental spending - a diminution, Wynn says, that always seems to hurt the poor.

Since 1989, Wynn has run the SHARE Food Program, a multifaceted antihunger organization that provides food for 350 to 500 Philadelphia neighborhood pantries for low-income residents. Last year, SHARE distributed 15 million pounds of food throughout the city, 6,000 of them from the farm.

From her office in SHARE's warehouse adjacent to its farm, Wynn also disburses free commodity foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She also manages half the $4.5 million the state has earmarked for the city this year to feed the needy.

And if Philadelphia were to suffer a Katrina-like catastrophe, the USDA says, Wynn would feed us all, as coordinator of emergency food.

Among those who battle hunger for a living, Wynn is a mentor/patron saint, a caring, straight-talking advocate whose Southern-accented voice can slide from honeyed greetings to profane tirades if people "aren't playing well in the sandbox," as Wynn says.

Sandy Sherman, director of nutrition education for the Food Trust, which promotes nutritious food, said, "As funding for the poor is reduced, Steveanna remains a giant in the field. She wants people to eat, and to eat better."

Operating her own (purple) warehouse forklift to stack food; overseeing 10 full-time employees, four part-timers and an astonishing 2,000 volunteers a month; or smoking too many cigarettes in her cramped, bunkerlike office, Wynn cuts a colorful figure.

She is also indispensable, those who help the poor say - a key weaver of the safety net that stretches, fraying and thin, beneath the poor.

"Steveanna is a wise soul - perhaps the only one - in the Philadelphia fight to end hunger," said Mariana Chilton, the nationally known Drexel University School of Public Health professor and antihunger advocate.

"She has taught and trained so many of us. If you are worth the oxygen you breathe in the Philadelphia food world, you do everything in your power to be Steveanna's friend and mentee."

In the fight against hunger, advocates say, two things are true:

The first is that hunger appears to be worse than ever, as poverty levels rise, while unemployment benefits run out and jobs remain scarce.

An example: The number of people in Philadelphia receiving food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP) increased 45 percent between 2007 and last April, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger said. In Montgomery County in the same period, the number increased 117 percent; in Chester County, 114 percent; in Bucks County, 113 percent; in Delaware County, 58 percent.

The second thing advocates say is that SNAP is one of the best tools to fight hunger.

So advocates can't explain why Congress may cut $16.5 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years.

If the cut goes through, three million people nationwide could lose benefits. An additional 500,000 households would see benefits slashed by $90 a month, according to calculations by the coalition.

Experts say that as more people preach smaller government, programs to help the poor shrink.

Pennsylvania dropped pantry food funding from $18.5 million in fiscal year 2007 to $17.3 million today. The Corbett administration stopped General Assistance programs that help the poor, and has added an asset test for anyone receiving SNAP.

The cuts are needed, officials say, as money dries up and budgets need to be brought in line.

The decreases nevertheless anger people like Wynn, who sees fewer truckloads of commodities coming in from the federal government: 30 tractor-trailer truckloads of food two years ago, seven today.

Meanwhile, need multiplies. SHARE's food cupboards served 185,000 households in fiscal 2011; during just the first three quarters of this year, 197,000 have been served, Wynn said.

"We're in worse shape than we've ever been," she added. "I don't see unemployment resolving. And people who are working are not being paid a living wage. Sometimes, I descend into the abyss. But being down is not allowed."

Wynn learned that buoyancy growing up mostly poor herself on a farm in Narrows, in southwest Virginia.

Hers was a nurtured childhood, with a dad who worked for the Celanese chemical company and ran a farm-equipment sales business with Wynn's mother, a substitute teacher.

In Narrows, Wynn learned from her father not to be judgmental. Her mother, in turn, urged Wynn to leave Narrows, too small a place for a smart young woman.

After college, Wynn moved away, then married and divorced twice. "I'm not a good picker of husbands," she said.

At 26, she returned to Narrows jobless and with a severely dyslexic son. She fell into work with the local community action center. "It was what I was meant to do," she declared.

"Steveanna was indignant that everyone does not have the same chances," said Kathy Rayne, who worked with her. "For people who do without, she's driven."

Wynn said she learned to fight for the poor in part because of the shabby way her son, Christopher, had been treated because of his dyslexia.

"I fought many battles for him," Wynn said, her eyes welling with tears. "I didn't think he was getting what he needed from schools. I learned that being nasty produces results that being nice doesn't. That's when my evil twin came out."

These days, Christopher, now 45, is married with three children, and owns an event-planning business near Nashville.

With her son's life on track, Wynn took the SHARE job. "I just needed something to consume me," she said.

Hunting Park can be rough territory for a rural Virginian, and Wynn was stunned to find people stealing from the warehouse. "I had never been where people were rude and stole." She upped her toughness, to Philly-streetwise caliber. And she got Chopper, a five-year-old yellow Lab, to protect her.

What impresses advocates is how Wynn is as comfortable chewing out representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture - who had been slow to reimburse SHARE for expenses - as she is patient directing homeless men who volunteer at the warehouse.

"People who run nonprofits forget the individual sometimes," said Harriet Sanders of the Resurrection Baptist Church food pantry in West Philadelphia. "But Steveanna cares about the people she serves."

Wynn is praised as a great partner, a savvy facilitator in the scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch yours Philly school of getting things done.

In fact, her state-of-the-art urban farm was put together in partnership with Pennsylvania State University, the Philadelphia Orchard Project, and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Back on a farm, Wynn has come full circle in her life.

Avoiding new husbands, she lives with Chopper in East Falls, tending her flower garden. She's a recent and devout convert to Catholicism.

Not long ago, a rumor arose that Wynn was retiring. Those who know her, like Melanie Jumanville of Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency, laughed. "Her cause is fighting hunger, and Steveanna will remain fighting, tooth and nail."

As for Wynn, she squashed the rumor with characteristic frankness: "For me, this is still fun. I will do it till I die."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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