PHILADELPHIA – Desiree’ LaMarr-Murphy grew up without enough food.
Back in the mid-1980s, school days were the hardest, when she’d sit without lunch in the cafeteria of the former William B. Mann Elementary School (now Mastery Charter Mann Elementary) in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, watching other kids eat.
Years later, after life improved a bit, an apartment fire left her and her children temporarily homeless and dependent on church-donated food that was lovingly bestowed but spoiled and inedible.
The food-less lunch periods and the after-fire charity forged LaMarr-Murphy, now 43, into an unparalleled hunger fighter. Trained as a special-ed teacher and now a special-needs coordinator for the School District of Philadelphia, LaMarr-Murphy promised herself two things: to never again suffer hunger, and to help feed children and their families by creating food pantries in schools and other locations throughout the region.
And now, during the pandemic, she’s distinguished herself as perhaps the only person in the Philadelphia area who runs a food pantry out of her own home. LaMarr-Murphy created the network of food donors for the pantry herself, and stores some of the supplies in the 550-square-foot building she calls her “she-shed” in her Upper Darby backyard.
People label survivors of hard times resilient, said LaMarr-Murphy, a widowed mother of five daughters. But, she explained, “there’s also something called post-traumatic growth. Bouncing back from trauma isn’t enough. You have to do something with your trauma: You grow and become somebody better for somebody else, not just for yourself.
“You’re healing yourself, then you’re helping others.”
Over time, LaMarr-Murphy discovered that there was something wrong in the early days of her life.
“I learned we were food insecure,” she said, referencing the term that means a person or family is lacking the money to buy enough food to live a healthy life.
She remembers having cereal and Oodles of Noodles for dinner, as well as pancakes made without pancake mix. LaMarr-Murphy would enviously watch “The Cosby Show,” in which the well-dressed characters lived cohesive, loving lives, with plenty to eat.
“How come,” she’d ask herself, “I don’t have that?”
In those days, anyone needing free school lunch had to turn in paperwork that LaMarr-Murphy didn’t know how to fill out.
“I didn’t want to make anyone in my family sad or feel bad, so I didn’t talk about not eating lunch,” she said. “And at school, no adult ever asked what was wrong.”
So, no sandwiches, no chicken nuggets, no pizza. She’d see and smell the food other students ate, and wait for the bell to ring.
“I just accepted this,” LaMarr-Murphy recalled.
At 17, she became pregnant while attending Overbrook High School. There she learned about food stamps and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).
“I was a disgrace to my family getting pregnant and being the first to be on welfare,” she said. “But those programs sustained us.”
After graduating from high school, LaMarr-Murphy went on to Philadelphia Community College. She had her second daughter with Christopher Murphy, the man who would become her husband.
At 23, she and Murphy separated for a while. One night, a fire broke out in her West Philadelphia home, and she and the two girls found themselves homeless.
When someone from a local church promised a box of food, LaMarr-Murphy fantasized about its contents, visualizing a nutritional cornucopia that would keep the beleaguered trio going. “Instead,” she said, remembering the exact items, “we got one can of waxed beans, one can of kidney beans, one can of chickpeas, and lots of moldy mushy produce.
“I fell to my knees and cried. We waited all day for this box of trash, and there was nothing to feed my kids.
“From that day forward, I vowed to never ever feel that way again.”
She kept her word. In 2009, LaMarr-Murphy went on to Temple University and graduated with a degree in education at age 32. She and Murphy reconciled, bought a house, and had three more children, one of whom would have her own child. Murphy would die of a pulmonary embolism at age 39 in 2016.
As a special-ed teacher in North Philadelphia, LaMarr-Murphy listened to her students talk and heard the hunger in their conversations:
“They would ask me what I had for dinner the previous night,” she said. “I’d tell them and they’d say, ‘I wish I had that.’ ”
LaMarr-Murphy would bring in food for the kids, her empty-stomach lunchtimes never diminished in her memory. Soon afterward, she started pantries, connecting with Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency, to stock the shelves in some of them. She opened her co-called Murphy’s Markets at Richard Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia, and at Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia.
LaMarr-Murphy also distributes food at several other locations in the area, though none more unique than her own home.
In the Philadelphia region, there are more than 800 food pantries, though LaMarr-Murphy’s Sellers Ave. location is believed to be the only one in a private home, according to both Philabundance CEO Loree Jones and George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program, the largest food distribution agency in the area.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, LaMarr-Murphy talked a bit about her anti-hunger mission with then-President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden at Philabundance during a day of service. She said that as she and Biden filled boxes for Philabundance clients, he made a promise of his own to fight food insecurity. And she said she felt she’d met a kindred spirit after Dr. Biden told her that, as a teacher, she too brings food to students — even adults.
In an icy rain, more than 30 people lined up on the sidewalk outside LaMarr-Murphy’s two-story stucco house in a middle-class Upper Darby neighborhood. It’s a startling sight — an outdoor market in a driveway, created by LaMarr-Murphy’s contacts and convictions.
“This helps a lot,” said Maria Guzman Salazar, 43, a pantry client and a local manicurist whose hours were curtailed because of the pandemic. “We’re feeding four adults and four kids in my house, and this is very good food. Everything is fresh. I feel blessed.”
Saju Paul agreed. “It’s important for my family that I come here,” said the 64-year-old who, pre-COVID-19, worked in food distribution at Philadelphia International Airport. “I have no job right now because of the pandemic, but I have a wife and three kids.”
During the Tuesday distributions, neighbors have sometimes complained because of the crowds, said Rashida Ximines, LaMarr-Murphy’s longtime friend. “But it’s nothing that can’t be rectified.” Mostly, people are impressed with LaMarr-Murphy’s “good spirit and kind heart,” she said.
Jones of Philabundance is also a fan, summing up LaMarr-Murphy’s value to the community:
“I’m moved by somebody who went through so many challenges and literally used them to make the world better.
“I find her inspiring.”