Across the country, 23.5 million Americans—including 6.5 million children—live in underserved communities that do not have affordable access to healthy foods. Among these are communities located in Greater Philadelphia, one of the areas with the highest food insecurity in the United States The Junior League of Philadelphia is addressing the issue in innovative, hands-on ways.

How did you become involved in addressing food insecurity in Philadelphia?

Our League conducted research and discovered the sad statistic that one in three Philadelphia-area children lives in poverty, and his/her parents are unable to meet basic, daily nutritional needs. This deficit can cause adverse health outcomes due to malnutrition and epidemic hunger. As part of our centennial celebration in 2011-2012, we launched the Apple a Day Healthy Living Initiative™, a multi-tiered community collaboration aimed at creating a positive impact on the health and wellness of adults and children in the Greater Philadelphia area. We are accomplishing this work in part by increasing the region’s capacity to supply and distribute healthy food to families in need. We use the acronym “FEED” to describe the four goals of the program:

  • FACILITATE increased access to fresh produce and combat malnutrition and epidemic hunger through a network of community partners
  • EDUCATE children and adults to experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living through hands-on nutrition and exercise education programs
  • EMPOWER individuals to become advocates for their own health and wellbeing
  • DISTRIBUTE fresh produce in areas classified as food deserts each year, so that adults and children in our community will live longer, healthier, and happier lives

What has made Apple a Day programming so successful?

We found two great partners with deep roots in our community: Greener Partners and SHARE Food Program. Greener Partners is involved in the operation of community farms as resources for local produce and education and works to ensure that all families, especially those in need, have access to and are educated about fresh and nutritious local foods. During the 2012-2013 League year, the JLP purchased shares in their farms, which provided produce to 32 families over the course of 26 weeks. We also made a contribution to Greener Partners, which enabled our partner to build “low tunnels,” which extend the growing season and therefore the community-supported share program into the colder months. Junior League of Philadelphia volunteers and their families also cleared cornfields, weeded, and assisted with preparing the land for the construction of the low tunnels.

The icing on the cake with Greener Partners is the Farm to You™ Mobile Garden Education Unit, which aims to combat food insecurity and chronic disease by educating communities about the production, preparation, and use of nutritious foods and by facilitating the distribution of fresh produce to families in need through a network of community partners. This is an innovative program that pairs the essential combination of food distribution with hands-on education in one setting, with the goal of “demystifying” produce. The program also gives participants familiarity with produce through planting seeds, observing plant lifecycles, and preparing and taste-testing a variety of fruits and vegetables. Participants receive nutritious, budget-friendly recipes for use at home. The Farm to You Mobile Garden has visited 82 schools, community centers, and large-scale community events with a connection to healthy living in just its first two years of existence.

SHARE is a dominant player in the fight against hunger in our city, distributing food to a variety of local food pantries and 500 families. One Saturday each month, the participants in the SHARE Food Program volunteer at the warehouse, bagging food in exchange for receiving access to reduced-price food. During this monthly “bagging day,” Junior League of Philadelphia volunteers run a program in SHARE’s kitchen to engage and educate children ages 8-14 on subjects of healthy eating, gardening, and basic cooking skills to create healthy meals.

In addition to SHARE and Greener Partners, the JLP has developed partnerships with Lankenau Medical Center, the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse, and Vetri Foundation for Children. All of our efforts are focused on building a healthier and happier Philadelphia community.

What are your future plans for improving food insecurity and education in these neighborhoods?

Beginning in October 2014, the Junior League of Philadelphia launched our Kids in the Kitchen® program with partner Christopher Columbus Charter School (CCCS). The goal of the Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen initiative, which is supported by The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. and its member Leagues, is to empower youth to make healthy lifestyle choices and help reverse the growth of childhood obesity and its associated health issues. Under the Apple a Day umbrella, the JLP aims to use Kids in the Kitchen to educate over 1,000 children per year in the Greater Philadelphia area to select and prepare healthy meals. The League provides lessons and demonstrations related to preparation of healthy meals and snacks through an eight-week after school program in partnership with CCCS.