National Geographic : 2014 Aug
78 national geographic • august 2014 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 first 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 Mayflower. 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? The 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-offs between food that’s filling 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 effect of hunger itself. AS THE FAC E OF HUNGER has changed, so has its address. The town of Spring, Texas, is where ranchland meets Houston’s sprawl, a suburb of curving streets and shade trees and privacy fences. The 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 2007. Yet in the suburbs America’s hungry don’t look the part either. They drive cars, which are a necessity, not a luxury, here. Cheap clothes and toys can be found at yard sales and thrift shops, making a middle-class appearance affordable. 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. The Jefferson 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 five sons, a daughter-in-law, and five grandchildren. The house has a rickety desktop computer in the living room and a tele- vision in most rooms, but only two actual beds; nearly everyone sleeps on mattresses or piles of blankets spread out on the floor. Though all three adults work full-time, their income is not enough to keep the family con- sistently fed without assistance. The root prob- lem is the lack of jobs that pay wages a family can live on, so food assistance has become the government’s—and society’s—way to supple- ment low wages. The Jeffersons receive $125 in food stamps each month, and a charity brings in meals for their bedridden matriarch. It can be tempting to ask families receiving food assistance, If you’re really hungry, then how can you be overweight? For many of the hungry in America, it’s an unintended side effect of hunger itself.