The Center for Hunger-Free Communities (the Center) was originally founded in 2004 as the Philadelphia GROW Project by Dr. Mariana Chilton at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. Since its inception, the Center has focused on addressing child hunger through research, advocacy, and community engaged work. The GROW Clinic, which began in 2005, provides comprehensive care to children struggling with proper weight gain and sees hundreds of Philadelphia children every year. Through its research with Children’s HealthWatch, the Center became nationally recognized for its expertise in child food insecurity.
In 2008, the Center added the participatory research project, Witnesses to Hunger, to ensure that low-income mothers and caregivers of children are included in the national dialogue on hunger and poverty. The project quickly drew attention from major media outlets and Congressional leaders. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. from Pennsylvania invited Witnesses to Hunger to display their photo exhibit in Washington, D.C. and hosted their traveling exhibit across Pennsylvania in 2010. Since then Witnesses to Hunger sites have begun in Baltimore, Boston, Camden, Connecticut, and Washington, DC. Exhibits have been held in state houses, city halls, and community centers. Members of Witnesses have testified before Congress and their local leaders about hunger, housing, education, and poverty.
Seeing the power in group saving and financing in India, Mariana Chilton brought the idea to benefit programs with the Building Wealth and Health Network. The Network pairs financial education with peer support to create a financial empowerment program. The Center matches the savings of the members and provides them with the tools and supports to save and build a future.
The research and advocacy showed the Center to see the deep isolation that comes with hunger and poverty. This reoccurring theme led the Center to create the EAT Cafe. It is Philadelphia's first pay-what-you-can restaurant. Individuals and family can come and enjoy a delicious three-course meal no matter their ability to pay for it. With strong partnerships and community support the EAT Cafe opened in October of 2016. It closed in April 2019.
After the closure of the EAT Cafe, the Center partnered with No Kid Hungry to host a Summer Meals Pilot program in the cafe space. The program ran from June to August 2019 and tested the idea of utilizing restaurant spaces as sites for the federally funded summer meal program.
The Center for Hunger-Free Communities continues to find innovative ways to address hunger and poverty. Our work informs policies on local, state, and national levels through our peer reviewed publications, policy briefs, programs, and community engaged work.