A culturally rich, vibrant metropolis with distinct neighborhoods, Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in America and home to more than 1.5 million people. But in 2009, Assistant Professor of Political Science Becki Scola, Ph.D., who had just moved to the city to take a faculty position at SJU, heard a sobering statistic on the local news: One in six children living in Philadelphia goes to bed hungry every night.

“My teaching area is in race, gender and economic class inequality, and at the time, I was a little naïve about hunger issues,” says Scola, who nonetheless suspected that politics played a role in the problem. “I remember thinking, ‘That is so sad! How can hunger be a partisan issue?”

Scola began looking into food access and advocacy, only to find that little political science research tapped into the food security movement. She was shocked that an issue in such need of policy-level solutions was so overlooked. The situation inspired her own formal research on food insecurity in Philadelphia. The resulting study, Not Deserving or Entitled: Anti-Hunger Advocacy in Philadelphia, was presented last fall at both the Western and Northeastern Political Science Association Conferences, and is now under review by the journal Social Policy and Administration.

A grant awarded to SJU’s Academy of Food Marketing in 2011 from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Higher Education Challenge funded Scola’s research. She was assisted by three student research associates — international relations major Emily Reineberg ’14 and political science majors Kristen Harper ’14 and Shirra Preval ’13 — who transcribed 42 interviews Scola conducted with officials representing key anti-hunger organizations. Afterward, she held focus groups of community members to gain an understanding of how Philadelphians view food insecurity issues.

On the whole, the findings were disheartening. “What I discovered is that in our city, there are many organizations fighting hunger, but very few are laying the groundwork to alleviate food insecurity,” she says. “When you reduce hunger, you feed a person for a day or a week, through food banks or free meals. Reducing food insecurity is more complex, because it means finding a way to feed people for the long run. It needs to be addressed with sound public policy, and only a handful of anti-hunger programs have the luxury of pursuing advocacy efforts to help create public policy.”

Scola notes that when it comes to making lasting change, organizations are faced with the challenge of pursuing advocacy without labeling themselves politically. In Philadelphia, the partisan divide is characterized by a familiar trope: Conservatives tend to cut social programs, pleading fiscal responsibility, while liberals fight the cuts, rallying for social justice. The result is that anti-hunger groups can’t declare an allegiance to gain political support, because they risk alienating the other side. At the same time, they are forced, with limited means, to try to put resources toward long-term programming while maintaining a sustainable operating budget. To further complicate the problem, many of the leaders Scola interviewed indicated that underlying race issues affect decisions regarding the groups that receive food assistance.

How, then, can food insecurity be reduced in Philadelphia? Though it may be a daunting task, Scola says it’s not impossible.

“These organizations are working toward the same goal, but there’s a disconnect among them, and their individual missions keep them from sending a unified message to lawmakers, which is essential when it comes to crafting policy,” says Scola. “Overcoming the obstacles they face requires the whole anti-hunger community to come together to gain the attention they need to become a policy-level concern.”