Biden returns to Philly food bank for MLK Jr. Day volunteering

President Biden helped workers at Philabundance pack food for those in need. It’s the third time he’s volunteered at the Philly food bank.

Listen 1:02
Joe Biden and Cherelle Parker working at the food bank together

President Joe Biden volunteers at Philabundance, a hunger relief organization, to mark Martin Luther King, Jr., day, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Philadelphia, with Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Joe Biden made his third pilgrimage to a Philadelphia Food Bank today, performing Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Day of Service” volunteer work at Philabundance.

Newly elected Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker joined Biden. The two walked into the packing area at about 11:44 a.m. and went to work putting produce in boxes that moved along a conveyer belt in an assembly line-style operation involving a couple dozen workers.

Founded in 1984, Philabundance distributes food to families in the region. In addition to the food bank and hunger relief, the non-profit runs a culinary vocational training program for low-income adults interested in culinary-based careers.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Joe Biden and Cherelle Parker working at the food bank together
President Joe Biden volunteers at Philabundance, a hunger relief organization, to mark Martin Luther King, Jr., day, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Philadelphia, with Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The president joined the same assembly line in 2021 and 2022. Last year, Biden opted to deliver a sermon at Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta, marking the first time a sitting president had addressed the famed church. First Lady Jill Biden, who joined the president during his prior visits to Philabundance, was absent this time.

As Biden helped load boxes of food destined for those in need, he talked with the volunteer standing next to him, Daniela Wright.

“I was so nervous,” Wright told WHYY News. “I would never in a million years thought I would get the chance to stand next to the president and serve next to him, and for him to affirm and recognize the work that I’m doing and the work that we’re all doing. It was really cool.”

She said he put her at ease talking about his early career as a public defense attorney, which resonated with the law school-bound AmeriCorps volunteer.

“I am a public interest girl all the way,” Wright said with a laugh. “I definitely want to stay in Philadelphia and build a public interest career on the law and possibly work on education policy or something like that. If I could use a JD to affect public policy in a positive way for the kids that I work with every day, that’s all I could ask.”

In addition to AmeriCorps, Wright works with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a legal nonprofit focusing on adult legal education.

Joe Biden working at the food bank
President Joe Biden volunteers at Philabundance, a hunger relief organization, to mark Martin Luther King, Jr., day, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Hunger in America

Today’s volunteers packed 500 boxes Philabundance will deliver around Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey. Volunteers say it’s only a drop in the bucket of the need they see.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Pennsylvania’s poverty rate is around 12%, a tick above the national average of 11.5%. Nearly 23% of Philadelphia’s 1.6 million residents fall under the poverty line. That makes Philadelphia the poorest of the 10 biggest cities in the nation, giving it the label “America’s Poorest Big City.”

That level is based on an annual wage of about $30,000 for a family of four, meaning that far more need the kinds of assistance that Philabundance provides.

Statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau do reflect a continuous decline in poverty levels since a high in 2011 of nearly 14% — a decline that lasted through President Obama’s second term, the Trump administration, and Bidens’ first term — though the pandemic years saw an aberrative slight uptick.

Board Chair Dixie James says that the numbers are misleading, however.

“I’ve been with Philabundance since 2015, and during that time we’ve actually seen the need increase,” James told WHYY News. “I think that’s just because people that are food insecure are not what we’ve traditionally thought about. They’re working families that need support from time to time. We are seeing more and more people reach out because they’ve had needs that previously weren’t surfaced.”

She noted that cyclical economic issues such as inflation mean that the need ebbs and flows, but it’s never completely fulfilled.

The Shutdown Threat

The need exists despite government assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which provide sustenance for more than 42 million people among more than 22 million households, including a record two million participants in Pennsylvania alone, last year.

The Biden administration is requesting that Congress appropriate $7.5 billion for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in the 2024 fiscal budget which U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack already admitted is not going to be enough. Roughly 320,000 people in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are enrolled in WIC.

In recent years, however, SNAP, WIC, and other government contributions to combating poverty and hunger have been under constant threat of suspension from a government shutdown resulting from political battles in Congress. That has advocates like James worried.

“We really need the programs and the support of those government programs to stay on par with the need that we know that we have in the community,” she said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Shutdowns can have catastrophic consequences because food banks are already struggling to meet the high levels of need that they see in their communities,” added Vince Hall, Chief Government Relations Officer for DC-based Feeding America.

Hall said that the suspension of not only government programs but also government workers, including many lower-paid public employees, would increase the need.

“A shutdown would add an entirely new food insecure community to that demand, so there would be longer lines struggling to share less food,” he said.

Campaign Trip

The president is currently polling in a dead heat with the currently presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. One of the major challenges for Biden is people’s perception of how he is handling the economy. According to the latest polling from Quinnipiac University, 58% of Pennsylvania residents do not approve of the president’s job performance, while two-thirds of voters call the economy weak.

However, many economic indicators suggest the economy is improving, leaving a gap between perception and reality.

Chris Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, says that he believes voters are starting to see improvements in their financial situations.

“In places like Pennsylvania, there seems to be some positive movement in Americans recognizing that, on many metrics, the economy is doing pretty well,” he said. “For President Biden, it’s attributing those successes to his efforts in the White House that seems to be lagging behind. We’ll see if the connection is made among voters that the bright spots in the economy are connected to the work of the Biden administration.”

It’s exactly for this reason Biden has been making so many trips to Pennsylvania, Borick said, noting that the frequency “is a testament to the importance of Pennsylvania in 2024.”

“I think anybody that’s following the electoral maps and looking ahead to this fall sees Pennsylvania as crucial for Biden, crucial for his reelection bid,” he added. “It’s necessary for the President to try and overcome some of the public dissatisfaction with his work in the White House, particularly on economic matters. I think you have to work in terms of getting out the message to voters about what you’ve done, where things are headed and try to build some confidence and acceptance and approval for your agenda and your policy,

Although the president’s approval rating is underwater, there does seem to be a gradual shift in the president’s standing in an assumed matchup with Trump. Despite Biden’s low job approval, the same poll puts him three percentage points over Trump. The same poll gave Trump a two-point lead in October.

Biden did not take questions from local reporters at this event, a departure from prior visits.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal