Escaping Hunger: One Man's Story

The number of Americans getting emergency food aid is on the rise, but millions who could use food stamps choose not to enroll. Derek Felton, community organizing coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, describes his journey out of poverty and hunger.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya, in for Ed Gordon.

A recent study on hunger found that 25 million Americans receive food annually from America's Second Harvest, a food bank network and the largest domestic hunger relief organization. That number represents an eight percent increase in just five years. But the need is greatest in communities of color. 30 percent of all African Americans receive food aid from Second Harvest.

Derek Felton is community organizing coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. His job is to reach out to Philadelphia's low income, predominantly Black communities and help people register for food stamps and other aid. Felton came to the job after a long and difficult journey that began like so many with hunger. This is Derek Felton in his own words.

Mr. DEREK FELTON (Coordinator, Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger): I was the oldest of seven children. We were on welfare, what we called welfare then, and at that time you didn't have food stamps or the EBT card. At that time you had to go down to the welfare line and wait in line with my little wagon to pick up this welfare food.

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That was the only food we had. We would only eat once a day. I never had breakfast when I went to school in the morning. And at that time I didn't realize what was going on. But I thought I was stupid. I couldn't pay attention in school. My mind was always wandering off. I always stayed in trouble; eventually dropped out in the eighth grade.

And because of that lifestyle I began stealing food. I was only shoplifting food. I never stole anything else. That doesn't justify what I did, but what happened is it became a lifestyle. I started stealing and breaking into houses. Eventually, when I dropped out of school I went to prison. I did a couple of years in prison, fell into this addiction of cocaine use.

Got to the point where I was doing $200 worth of cocaine a day. It was sometime about 1990, my wife and I had separated. My wife came and got me one day and said let's go join church. And we went to this little church on Westminster Avenue. After couple of years of being there, my Pastor asked me would I run his soup kitchen. He had found out that I had a lot background in food.

They had a soup kitchen there where they were feeding people that were homeless, people that was living in addiction, women who were prostituting themselves. But I felt weird and out of place because these people knew I was a drug addict, but yet I was in there running that soup kitchen. That may have been the time God when God said, okay, you've done all you can do, it's time for me. Ask me to step in. And what happened is I got so involved into serving people and working in the community feeding programs that because these people knew I was a drug addict and they began to watch how my life began to change, people started having other hopes that their life can change also. So it was an awesome position that God has placed me in. And ever since then my platform has been fighting hunger.

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Unidentified Man: (Singing) [unintelligible]

A young lady named Cheryl, she came into our food company. She used to work for the FBI. And how I knew that was because you have use ID when you come into emergency food cupboard. Soup kitchens are different. And she showed us an ID and the only thing she had was the ID from the FBI. And I was astonished because here's a young lady who worked for the FBI and now is a drug addict.

She was a very hard case. She was a very proud woman. She didn't like the idea she had to come an emergency food cupboard. But she realized if she didn't she wasn't going to eat. And we would bump heads a lot. I went to get something to eat one day and I put a sign up on the door saying I'll be right back. So as soon as I get back, who is standing in the door but Cheryl. She's angry because I went to get something to eat and she didn't have anything to eat.

And this girl broke down and started crying and saying, you know, Derek, I'm sorry I've been so mean to you. You know, I always cuss you out. You know, this is what's going on and I need help and I this and I that. And so I got on the phone and made a phone call to an organization that was in North Philadelphia, and I took Cheryl over and put her in my car. She never even got any food that day. Getting into a recovery system was more important to her than getting anything to eat.

And I put her in my car and I took her down to Broad Street myself; waited with her while they enrolled her in the program. Because of that today she's now drug free. The food was just a tool.

(Soundbite of music)

Just last night I got a call and I went over there and the lady had a car full of kids. And she went on to tell me about how she got to work at 11 to 7, and she was telling me about how she going to be doing good in the future. She was a very proud lady. She did not like the idea that she had to be in that food cupboard getting food. And I'm trying to let her know that this is not a shame, you're not alone, and this is what we're here for. And this is why people don't go apply for food stamps. They're proud.

Being proud is a good thing, because I used to be proud too. But I had to learn to put my pride aside because it wasn't putting any food in my stomach. If you know that you will make it--you have to make choices whether you're going to pay your utilities or buy food, if you know you've got to make a choice whether you're going to buy--if you're a senior, if you got to buy medication or buy food.

If you know you're making a decision whether you go without a meal so your kids eat, if you know you have to make these types of choices, put your pride aside. Don't be ashamed. Hunger has no shame.

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