Millions of working Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

The New Face of Hunger

By Tracie McMillan Photographs by Kitra Cahana, Stephanie Sinclair, and Amy Toensing

Why are people malnourished in the

richest country on Earth?

By 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. This special eight-month series explores how we can

do that—without overwhelming the planet.

The Future of



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Kristin Hahn and her grandmother, Janet Groven, visit a weekly soup kitchen in Charles City, Iowa. “By the end of the month we have nothing,” says Groven, who also depends on a food pantry to feed her family. Of America’s 48 million “food insecure”— the modern term for the hungry—more than half are white, and more than half live outside cities. AMY TOENSING



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New York City’s Bronx borough is crammed with fast-food restaurants but has few grocery stores, earning it a reputation as a food desert. Home to America’s poorest congressional district, the Bronx has a hunger rate of 37 percent, the highest in the city. STEPHANIE SINCLAIR



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On a gold-gray morning in Mitchell County, Iowa, Christina Dreier sends her son, Keagan, to school without breakfast. He is three years old, barrel-chested, and stubborn, and usually refuses to eat the free meal he quali!es for at preschool. Faced with a dwindling pantry, Dreier has decided to try some tough love: If she sends Keagan to school hungry, maybe he’ll eat the free breakfast, which will leave more food at home for lunch.

Dreier knows her gambit might back!re, and it does. Keagan ignores the school breakfast on o”er and is so hungry by lunchtime that Dreier picks through the dregs of her freezer in hopes of !lling him and his little sister up. She shakes the last seven chicken nuggets onto a battered baking sheet, adds the remnants of a bag of Tater Tots and a couple of hot dogs from the fridge, and slides it all into the oven. She’s gone through most of the food she got last week from a lo- cal food pantry; her own lunch will be the bits of potato le# on the kids’ plates. “I eat lunch if there’s enough,” she says. “But the kids are the most important. $ey have to eat !rst.”

$e fear of being unable to feed her children hangs over Dreier’s days. She and her husband, Jim, pit one bill against the next—the phone against the rent against the heat against the gas—trying always to set aside money to make up for what they can’t get from the food pantry or with their food stamps, issued by the Supple- mental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Keagan and Cheyenne Dreier have the toys and trappings of a middle-class life, but their parents rely on donated foods—typically processed—to feed them. “It’s not like we can eat all healthy,” says mom Christina. With junk food plentiful and often cheap, hunger and obesity are now parallel problems.

Congressional cuts to SNAP last fall of !ve bil- lion dollars pared her bene!ts from $ to $ a month.

On this particular a#ernoon Dreier is worried about the family van, which is on the brink of repossession. She and Jim need to open a new bank account so they can make automatic pay- ments instead of scrambling to pay in cash. But that will happen only if Jim !nishes work early. It’s peak harvest time, and he o#en works until eight at night, applying pesticides on commer- cial farms for $ an hour. Running the errand would mean forgoing overtime pay that could go for groceries.

It’s the same every month, Dreier says. Bills go unpaid because, when push comes to shove, food wins out. “We have to eat, you know,” she says, only the slightest hint of resignation in her voice. “We can’t starve.”

Chances are good that if you picture what hunger looks like, you don’t summon an image of

someone like Christina Dreier: white, married, clothed, and housed, even a bit overweight. $e image of hunger in America today di”ers mark- edly from Depression-era images of the gaunt- faced unemployed scavenging for food on urban streets. “$is is not your grandmother’s hunger,” says Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at the City University of New York. “Today more working people and their families are hungry because wages have declined.”

In the United States more than half of hun- gry households are white, and two-thirds of those with children have at least one working adult—typically in a full-time job. With this new

image comes a new lexicon: In  the U.S. government replaced “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe any household where, sometime during the previous year, peo- ple didn’t have enough food to eat. By whatever name, the number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to  million by —a !vefold jump since the late s, including an increase of  percent since the late s. Privately run programs like food pantries and soup kitchens have mushroomed too. In  there were a few hundred emer- gency food programs across the country; today there are ,. Finding food has become a central worry for millions of Americans. One in six reports running out of food at least once a year. In many European countries, by contrast, the number is closer to one in .

To witness hunger in America today is to enter a twilight zone where refrigerators are so frequently bare of all but mustard and ketch- up that it provokes no remark, inspires no


Learn more about the Dreier family and their struggles on our digital editions.



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Mikka Drahein, four, snacks on pasta at her home in Osage, Iowa. A grain elevator next door stores some of the state’s vast output of corn and soybeans. Government nutrition guidelines encour- age eating fruits and vegetables, but subsidies support mostly the production of corn, soy, and other commodity crops. AMY TOENSING



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Dinner can be a haphazard affair for the White family. Parents Rebecca and Bob struggle to feed five children—and pay all their bills—on the $2,000-a-month salary Bob earns at the nearby Winnebago plant. Nearly 60 percent of food-insecure U.S. households have at least one working family member. AMY TOENSING



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embarrassment. Here dinners are cooked using macaroni-and-cheese mixes and other processed ingredients from food pantries, and fresh fruits and vegetables are eaten only in the !rst days af- ter the SNAP payment arrives. Here you’ll meet hungry farmhands and retired schoolteachers, hungry families who are in the U.S. without papers and hungry families whose histories stretch back to the May!ower. Here pocketing food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch are so common that such practices barely register as a way of coping with hunger and are simply a way of life.

It can be tempting to ask families receiving

food assistance, If you’re really hungry, then how can you be—as many of them are—over- weight? “e answer is “this paradox that hun- ger and obesity are two sides of the same coin,” says Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Pov- erty and Prosperity Program of the Center for American Progress, “people making trade-o#s between food that’s !lling but not nutritious and may actually contribute to obesity.” For many of the hungry in America, the extra pounds that re- sult from a poor diet are collateral damage—an unintended side e#ect of hunger itself.

As the face of hunger has changed, so has its address. “e town of Spring, Texas, is where ranchland meets Houston’s sprawl, a suburb of curving streets and shade trees and privacy fences. “e suburbs are the home of the Ameri- can dream, but they are also a place where pov- erty is on the rise. As urban housing has gotten more expensive, the working poor have been

pushed out. Today hunger in the suburbs is growing faster than in cities, having more than doubled since .

Yet in the suburbs America’s hungry don’t look the part either. “ey drive cars, which are a necessity, not a luxury, here. Cheap clothes and toys can be found at yard sales and thri4 shops, making a middle-class appearance a#ordable. Consumer electronics can be bought on install- ment plans, so the hungry rarely lack phones or televisions. Of all the suburbs in the country, northwest Houston is one of the best places to see how people live on what might be called a minimum-wage diet: It has one of the highest

percentages of households receiving SNAP as- sistance where at least one family member holds down a job. “e Je#erson sisters, Meme and Kai, live here in a four-bedroom, two-car-garage, two-bath home with Kai’s boyfriend, Frank, and an extended family that includes their in- valid mother, their !ve sons, a daughter-in-law, and !ve grandchildren. “e house has a rickety desktop computer in the living room and a tele- visio