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Laura Petro
Petro on Paper

Throughout the school year, it is rare to hear a student at Penn talking about not having enough to eat — in fact, between meal plans, Insomnia cookies and free food from GBM meetings, we are more likely to complain that there is too much to eat.

As we all go home or to an internship for the summer, hoping that we didn’t put on the “Freshman 15,” many less fortunate students across Philadelphia will leave their schools on empty stomachs.

So as students who spend the majority of our year at Penn, and therefore with the surrounding community, it is our responsibility to do something about a pervasive, threatening issue — hunger.

Thousands of students in Philadelphia’s schools face hunger and food deprivation during the school year. When summer rolls around, this problem only gets worse. With school out, children no longer have to worry about homework and studying — they face a bigger challenge: what to eat?

During the school year, Nutritional Development Services, a faith-based nonprofit organization and the largest supplier of free meals in Philadelphia, supplies nine million meals to students who cannot afford them through a free lunch program. During the summer, NDS only supplies one million meals.

Of course there aren’t eight million less hungry students in the summer than during the rest of the year. The problem lies elsewhere.

During the summer, it is harder for groups like NDS to find hungry students to feed. Joe Tierney, Penn’s Fox Leadership coordinator, explains that there is no other time when students are in large, easily accessible groups as when they are in school. Because of this, during the school year, largely all students who qualify for free or reduced lunch are fed.

The challenge for programs that supply meals to children who need them is finding hungry children in the summer, when they aren’t in school.

That’s where the Summer Meals program, a branch of NDS, comes in. Summer Meals works specifically to fight hunger among young Philadelphia students in the summer. They receive funding from the USDA, which they then use to create and deliver healthy meals to students who cannot afford them at various schools, churches and recreational centers.

Summer Meals establishes sites — churches, schools, public housing and community organizations — around the city where kids 18 and under can receive free meals during the months of June, July and August. Summer Meals is certainly successful in their cause — with over 1,000 sites, the Summer Meals program is taking a huge bite out of the hunger issue.

Unfortunately, there are still many hungry students who aren’t fed because they don’t know about Summer Meals or don’t have a site that is accessible to them. Organizations like Philabundance and NDS are working hard to find and feed hungry students in Philadelphia.

Penn professor John Dilulio is highly involved with the fight against hunger and is certainly doing more than his part. In addition to numerous anti-hunger efforts, he is currently working with the Aspen Institute and others to develop a pilot program to partner universities and faith-based organizations to expand summer food distribution networks nationally. But when it comes to an issue as pervasive as hunger, strength lies in numbers.

Penn’s Fox Leadership program is building the strength in numbers. Every year for the past four years, Fox sends three Penn students to work as NDS interns for 10 weeks during the summer. Day to day, students work to ensure the proper functioning of the Summer Meals program and make sure hungry students are being fed.

Tierney explains that you don’t have to dedicate your whole summer to the cause — there are a lot of ways to make a difference. You can do as little as volunteer at a site around the city during the summer if you’re going to be on campus. Or if you’re returning home for the summer, you can contact Philadelphia newspapers and ask to write an op-ed about the issue.

Dilulio praised Penn students in the fight against hunger, explaining that we have “already played a meaningful role here in Philadelphia.”

But starting this summer, it is our chance to make our role that much more meaningful.

Here at Penn, we should utilize our diverse skill sets to fight this issue — whether your abilities lie in research, communications or business, there is a place for you to hit the problem head-on.

Simply by raising awareness, you can give something back to the community that we call home for most of the year.

Laura Petro is a rising College sophomore from Galloway, NJ. Her email address is You can follow her @LauraVPetro. “Petro on Paper” runs biweekly during the summer.

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