For nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty – the highest in more than half a century – getting a meal on the table isn’t easy. One-in-seven now receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (better known as food stamps) but that barely covers the necessities, especially when assistance runs thin at the end of the month. By then, foods like peanut butter and pasta become a main course for those on assistance, half of whom are children.
Some have been chronically poor, but many are the newcomers to federal food assistance — recent veterans, college graduates, once middle-class families in suburbia, and farm workers, who never imagined they would learn what hunger felt like.
Steven Johnson, 42, Afghanistan war veteran
After being airlifted out of Afghanistan with a shoulder injury, Steven Johnson was medically discharged from the Army in January. With a wife and three teenage children to support in Leander, a town some 30 miles north of Austin, Texas, he expected to start receiving his Veterans Affairs medical disability benefits as soon as his Army pay stopped. But then a month went by without a paycheck, and then another.
Disability cases take an average of 394 days to process, and even longer for reservists and National Guard members. Desperate for cash, Johnson got a part-time job loading boxes in a warehouse, but severe shoulder pain forced him to quit. He pawned his jewelry and tried to sell his TV on Craigslist. His teenage kids applied for after school jobs. One day in March, the refrigerator was empty and the end of his kids’ school year loomed. “When school’s out they’re home all day, every day, eating,” says Johnson.
Steven Johnson (continued)
So, for the first time in his life, Johnson applied for federal food assistance. It was his wife’s idea. “I wasn’t embarrassed,” Johnson says. “I’m not going to sit here and let my kids be hungry because of my pride.”
Now, each week Johnson and his wife huddle over a calculator and a handful of clipped coupons and ﬁgure out how to spend their family’s $125 weekly allowance. They rely on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, beans and rice, and ramen noodles. Eventually, Johnson will begin receiving his VA check for upwards of $2,500 a month and the kitchen, he hopes, will return to normal. “Food stamps were the last resort for me,” says Johnson.
Lynn Smathers, 66, cancer survivor, shops at food bank.
If it were not for a friend’s husband who hunts wild game, Lynn Smathers, says she would go hungry. He leaves her deer, elk and wild pheasant meat in a little cooler outside her trailer at the Mobile Manner trailer park in Marysville, Washington.
A lifelong Republican, Smathers worked most of her life in accounting and banking, picking up work wherever her husband’s job took her. After a divorce and foreclosure in Texas, Smathers moved alone to the Pacific Northwest and took job in a regional bank. For a moment, her life seemed settled. Then in 2009, Smathers was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Lynn Smathers (continued)
Chemotherapy and surgery left her $15,000 in debt and too weak to work at the bank. She left, and took a part-job in a gas station. But plagued by health problems, she quit that job too. Smathers has tried b sell whatever she had of value, including two cemetery plots she bought when she was married and her gold jewelry.
Aside from Social Security, Smathers receives $51 a month in food stamps and makes twice monthly trips to a food bank. She bakes meat loaf, or macaroni salad and eats it for a week straight. “Thankfully |’m not a big eater,” she says. When she hears politicians talk about reducing social security, or gutting the food stamp program, she says: “l don’t think they have a clue what people go through.”
Alejandro, 32, a farm worker and father short of food
Despite laboring as a farm worker in the richest agricultural county in the nation, Alejandro Mayoral often goes hungry. He lives with his girlfriend and three young children in a trailer in Selma, a city in the heart of California’s Central Valley.
For work, Mayoral follows the harvest, picking and packing whatever fruit or vegetable is ripe. This year he was hired to harvest tomatoes, chilies, oranges and pineapples. When there is nothing to pick, the Mayoral family goes without any income for weeks, sometimes months. He says his situation is not uncommon — many farm workers surrounded by food but don’t have enough.
Alejandro Mayoral (continued)
Mayoral came from his home state of Oaxaca 11 years ago to work in the fields. Although he and his girlfriend entered the U.S. illegally and are ineligible for food stamps, his three children are American citizens and do qualify.
The family eats traditional Mexican food but that they often substitute cactus, or squash in place of meat because they cannot afford it. For breakfast they eat beans. “If we had more money to spend I’d buy more milk and more juice for the children,” Mayoral says. If he had funds to splurge on himself, he would buy seafood. “Shrimp en caldo is my favorite,” he says.
Sandra Lymon, 46, laid off from an auto factory
Ask Sandra Lymon what a can of Del Monte green beans cost and she’ll tell you down to the cent. For two decades Lymon made a decent living as a factory worker making everything from military uniforms to car parts. Most recently she made interior doors for Hyundai Sonatas.
Then on May 9, 2011, she was laid off. Suddenly out of work, Lymon applied for food stamps and began collecting unemployment insurance. Her then 19-year-old daughter was living with her in a mobile home in Pine Apple, Alabama, a little town in the so-called Black Belt, a stretch of land across several southern states known for rich, black topsoil and for some of the poorest counties in the country.
Sandra Lymon (continued)
“It’s a different feeling, I’ve never been out of work, I’ve never been laid off,” says Lymon. “When you go to your refrigerator and you don’t have a paycheck coming in, you think about food different.” She bought generic brand bread, found a bod bank, cut back on meat and shopped for staples like peanut butter at dollar stores.
What astounds Lymon is just how quickly her life unraveled—from a full-time job with benefits to pouring over expiration labels on dollar store cereal boxes. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if it’s real,” she says.
Chris Smlth, 25, grad student In debt
Chris Smith grew up in a comfortably middle class family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After graduating from a private high school, he went on to a private liberal arts college in Oregon. ‘No one in my family has ever had to go on food stamps,” he says.
But when he graduated in 2009, the economy was in free fall and he had more than $40,000 in student loans. Smith started sending out resumes, but he could not land a job, not even a pat-time gig at a lumber store. So he went back school at the University of Chicago, with the hopes of becoming a professor. He also applied for food stamps.
Chris Smlth (continued)
‘Without them, I would have to add to my already huge pile of debt,” says Smith. He gets about $200 a month in food assistance, which covers 90 percent of his food costs. He does most of his shopping at farmers’ markets where a program allows him to double every dollar spent on fresh fruit and vegetables.
Initially, his family was taken aback, but Smith ignored their concerns. “I have more than 500 resumes and cover letters on my computer from the last few years,” he says. “That‘s a testament to how hard I’ve tried to get work.”