Inquirer Editorial: Ending region's hunger games

A Philabundance driver unloads food from one of the charity's trucks.
A Philabundance driver unloads food from one of the charity's trucks. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 07, 2014

If any members of our fractious species could get along, you might expect it to be those who make it their life's work to feed the hungry. And yet the Philadelphia region's food charities find themselves figuratively throwing food at each other.

Fortunately, being practiced altruists, they ought to be able to find a way to put aside pride and parochialism for the sake of the needy.

The local antihunger giant Philabundance is at the center of the controversy. With a budget of nearly $50 million and a staff of more than 100, Philabundance takes food from supermarkets, food makers, and other large donors and discounters and distributes it to nearly 500 area food pantries serving the needy. But as The Inquirer's Alfred Lubrano reported this week, Philabundance's strategies have several smaller, suburban food charities bellyaching.

The director of a Montgomery County pantry, for instance, says she can't afford Philabundance's charges of up to 19 cents a pound. Charity officials in Reading and Wilmington say Philabundance is gobbling up donations that should stay local. And there is a chorus of criticism in Chester County, where State Sen. Andrew Dinniman says the Philadelphia-based charity is "not needed," and a volunteer says the "ugly fact" is that Philabundance is taking from Chesco to feed Philly.

Such jealous guarding of provincial resources is jarring coming from enterprises that urge those with much to support those with little. Yes, Philadelphia takes about three times as much food from Philabundance as its donors contribute - while Chester County gives about a third more than it gets - but the city also has 18 times as many households receiving food stamps. The idea that the concentrated poverty of the city might be addressed partly by its wealthier neighbors should not be anathema to a charity.

Moreover, Philabundance's size and savvy enable a regional and professional approach to hunger that has more benefits than costs. Some large donors prefer the organization because they can count on its safe handling of food, which is no trivial matter.

That said, Philabundance's tone and tactics have created enough indigestion among fellow food charities to warrant adjustments. Efforts to quantify the regional distribution of need and assistance could help. So could sensitivity to local needs and concerns, particularly as the group strays further from its headquarters in its noble efforts to meet an immense demand.

These charities are bickering against a backdrop of greater poverty in the wake of the recession, along with shortsighted government reductions in nutrition and unemployment assistance. As Philabundance executive director Bill Clark told The Inquirer, the Goliath in this story is not the charity, but the need. It's a target big enough that countless Davids should be able to aim in the same direction.

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