National Geographic : 2014 Aug
#futureoffood 79 Like most of the new American hungry, the Jeffersons face not a total absence of food but the gnawing fear that the next meal can’t be counted on. When Meme shows me the family’s food supply, the refrigerator holds takeout boxes and beverages but little fresh food. Two cupboards are stocked with a smattering of canned beans and sauces. A pair of freezers in the garage each contain a single layer of food, enough to fill bel- lies for just a few days. Meme says she took the children aside a few months earlier to tell them they were eating too much and wasting food besides. “I told them if they keep wasting, we have to go live on the corner, beg for money, or something.” Jacqueline Christian is another Houston mother who has a full-time job, drives a com- fortable sedan, and wears flattering clothes. Her older son, 15-year-old Ja’Zarrian, sports bright orange Air Jordans. There’s little clue to the family’s hardship until you learn that their clothes come mostly from discount stores, that Ja’Zarrian mowed lawns for a summer to get the sneakers, that they’re living in a homeless shel- ter, and that despite receiving $325 in monthly food stamps, Christian worries about not having enough food “about half of the year.” Christian works as a home health aide, earn- ing $7.75 an hour at a job that requires her to crisscross Houston’s sprawl to see her clients. Her schedule, as much as her wages, influences what she eats. To save time she often relies on premade food from grocery stores. “You can’t go all the way home and cook,” she says. On a day that includes running a dozen er- rands and charming her payday loan officer into giving her an extra day, Christian picks up Ja’Zarrian and her seven-year-old, Jerimiah, af- ter school. As the sun drops in the sky, Jerimiah begins complaining that he’s hungry. The neon glow of a Hartz Chicken Buffet appears up the road, and he starts in: Can’t we just get some gizzards, please? Christian pulls into the drive-through and orders a combo of fried gizzards and okra for $8.11. It takes three declined credit cards and an emergency loan from her mother, who lives nearby, before she can pay for it. When the food finally arrives, filling the car with the smell of hot grease, there’s a collective sense of relief. On the drive back to the shelter the boys eat until the gizzards are gone, and then drift off to sleep. Christian says she knows she can’t afford to eat out and that fast food isn’t a healthy meal. But she’d felt too stressed—by time, by Jerimiah’s insistence, by how little money she has—not to give in. “Maybe I can’t justify that to someone who wasn’t here to see, you know?” she says. “But I couldn’t let them down and not get the food.” OF COURSE IT IS POSSIBLE to eat well cheaply in America, but it takes resources and know-how that many low-income Americans don’t have. Kyera Reams of Osage, Iowa, puts an incredible amount of energy into feeding her family of six a healthy diet, with the help of staples from food banks and $650 in monthly SNAP benefits. A stay-at-home mom with a high school educa- tion, Reams has taught herself how to can fresh produce and forage for wild ginger and cran- berries. When she learned that SNAP benefits could be used to buy vegetable plants, she dug two gardens in her yard. She has learned about wild mushrooms so she can safely pick ones that aren’t poisonous and has lobbied the local li- brary to stock field guides to edible wild plants. “We wouldn’t eat healthy at all if we lived off the food-bank food,” Reams says. Many foods commonly donated to—or bought by—food pantries are high in salt, sugar, and fat. She esti- mates her family could live for three months on the nutritious foods she’s saved up. The Reamses have food security, in other words, because Kyera makes procuring food her full-time job, along with caring for her husband, whose dis- ability payments provide their only income. But most of the working poor don’t have the time or know-how required to eat well on little. Often working multiple jobs and night shifts, Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating. Photographers Kitra Cahana, Stephanie Sinclair, and Amy Toensing are known for their intimate, sensitive portraits of people.