National Geographic News
Photo of a woman and a baby in a kitchen in Iowa.

A woman in Osage, Iowa, cans homegrown vegetables to supplement what her family, classified as "food insecure," receives from the local food bank.

Photograph by Amy Toensing, National Geographic Creative

Tracie McMillan

National Geographic

Published July 16, 2014

Her face was small and pitiful: a brown-eyed, blond-curled toddler, eyes darting, lying on a doctor's table. First we saw her belly, rounder than her skinny legs would suggest, prodded by a physician. And then the camera pulled back, showing the filthy, caked bottoms of her feet.

The year was 1968, and the child was a subject of "Hunger in America," a CBS Reports documentary that aired amid President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. Other scenes showed sharecropper families with rat-infested bedding, and Mexican-Americans too hungry to move.

That was the face of American hunger in 1968. The girl was one of ten million Americans considered hungry, a number equivalent to 5 percent of the population. Most of the hungry lacked jobs, and the unemployment rate of 4 percent nearly tracked the rate of hunger. But however dire that hunger was, it was marginal, with 1 in 20 Americans going without food.

Today, nearly 50 years later, hunger in America looks very different. (Related Graphic: $10 Meals—Fresh Food vs. Fast Food.)

Hunger story promo

It's a Different Hunger

The biggest difference between hunger in 1968 and today may well be sheer numbers: In 2012, 49 million Americans struggled with hunger, according to the USDA. That's 16 percent of the population, nearly double the then unemployment rate.

For the sake of comparison, that translates to 1 in 6 Americans. Much of that, say experts, can be attributed to a change in how we measure hunger.

In 2006 the USDA traded the term "hunger" for "food insecurity," shifting the focus from whether people were literally starving to whether staying fed was a problem. Researchers had traditionally measured hunger through physical symptoms, like stunted growth and being underweight. Now they began asking Americans whether they were ever actually hungry: Had they missed meals, worried about running out of food, or gone to bed hungry?

Measuring food insecurity rather than hunger has led to a startling new picture of America, says Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College whose recently re-released Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat explores the link between hunger and agricultural policy.

When it comes to America's hungry, says Poppendieck, "they're not hungry all the time; they just can't count on not being hungry."

The Hungry Have Stuff—and Jobs

In New York City's Bronx borough, more than one-third of the residents and nearly half the children are food insecure. Even so, the people who show up at food assistance programs there may surprise you, says Christopher Bean, executive director of Part of the Solution, a nonprofit that runs a soup kitchen and food pantry in the borough.

"The most common misperception comes back to the idea that the individuals ... who are food insecure are ... street homeless," says Bean. Part of the Solution sees those people, he says, but its clientele "is families, it is mothers with baby strollers, it's people with cell phones."

Today the hungry are almost always employed, a sea change since the 1960s. In 2012, 60 percent of all food-insecure Americans lived in households with a full-time worker; another 15 percent lived in households with a part-time worker.

It is now so common for people to be both employed and hungry, says Bean, that in 2011 Part of the Solution added Saturday hours to its pantry in hopes of serving more working families.

This year the nonprofit decided to expand into evenings and possibly Sundays for the same reason. "We've seen the trend of more and more working people struggling with hunger," says Bean. "We're changing our program delivery model to accommodate them."

See how a rural Arkansas food bank works to feed every hungry mouth.

Hunger Becoming a Problem of Wages

At its base, modern hunger is a problem of income, says Christian Gregory, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service.

In June, Gregory and two colleagues published a report about food insecurity in postrecession America, listing the three biggest predictors. The first was unemployment and a sheer lack of income: If you don't have a job, you're more likely to lack food.

But the next two predictors of food insecurity were variations on the theme of low wages. One was inflation, which in this context means the failure of wages to keep up with the cost of living. The other was rising food prices. Indeed, even though more people had jobs, food prices rose enough that they couldn't necessarily buy more food with their wages.

And that too is a significant difference from 1968. Today the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. In nominal terms, that's a huge raise over the $1.60 on offer in 1968. But adjust for inflation—for rising health and housing costs, for the skyrocketing cost of education—and 1968 looks much better. That minimum wage, today, would equal $10.94.

When it comes to hunger, said Gregory, "it really matters how much income is available to people."

Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

22 comments
Liz R
Liz R

So 16% are hungry, and what percent is obese, again?


Maybe there's a clue here...oh wait that might involve "socialism", oopsie, so we can't possible do it. Maybe when 50% are hungry amd 1% owns 99% of the wealth?...

Ian Kemp
Ian Kemp

 And yet the majority of these people will vote Republican....why???? 

Fornik Tsai
Fornik Tsai

I love the last words - it really matters how much income is available to people.

Shelly Lloyd
Shelly Lloyd

I remember when I first started living on my own with my husband. I was waiting tables at a BBQ joint, and he was making just above minimum wage at $6.00 an hour. The end of the month, when rent was coming due was always the worse. We would have to save every penny of my tips. And often we would have no food in the house. Usually we would buy tea bags, and sometimes crackers and that would be all that would sustain us for about 3 days. I remember drinking hot tea with no sugar or milk so that the warm tea would help the hunger pains. And then I would go to work at a BBQ place, quite literally starving. It was horrid. Serving all that food when I had not eaten anything other than crackers for 2 days. UGh. That was about 17 years ago, but I have never forgotten what it was like. 

We're doing better than we were then, and I would not consider us Food Insecure now--but I know that it would not take much to put us back there again. 

Ishka McNulty
Ishka McNulty

Look at the "food is free" website or facebook page.  There are many people world wide taking on this mantra, growing and giving away food and plants to help grow their own.  It is probably only a drop in the bucket but with encouragement it can become a flood. 

Richard Hovey
Richard Hovey

It is well-documented: Americans blame people on the basis of "character" for problems that clearly arise from "situations." Everyone (apparently) knows a welfare mother who drives a Cadillac. The fact is, about 10% of people will cheat in any enterprise. That's not a reason (at least, not a good reason) to eliminate the enterprise.


Right now, American taxpayers are subsidizing companies that pay minimum wage. They pay to support corporations that park an estimated $2 to $3 trillion in offshore accounts, who move jobs overseas, and relocate their headquarters to countries where they'll pay less in taxes, despite the fact that actual taxes paid by corporations are already at a historic low. Americans also subsidize the oil, coal, and gas industries that not only pollute our air but damage our health. It's taxpayers who pick up the tab, calculated in billions of dollars, for these irresponsible corporate "citizens."


You have to ask yourself, why aren't we shaming them for driving Cadillacs while feeding at the public trough? 


It is far too easy on our lazy brains to uncritically accept the dubious principle that "people get what they deserve": no shades of gray, no fine distinctions . . . and not a shred of understanding of the Social Darwinism that undergirds this opinion.

Peter Vogl
Peter Vogl

Actually income allocation is a growing problem fuelled by things like every day costs rising much faster then income increases, plus many of us have lost our health insurance due to obamacare and are now faced with choosing between paying for medication or buying food.

J Taylor
J Taylor

We need to have Americans own family farms. Remember history. When the German Weimar Republic was saddled with punishing crushing over budening WWI debt. Their people were starving and even and their money was worthless and the merchants would buy up all thefarms  produce like rye and sell it outside the country because the foreign money was worth more in exchange. Now that we have trillions of dollars in debt with China where do you think the merchants will sell our farm produce if the Yen increased in value?

David Jones
David Jones

It would be interesting to understand how income allocation affects "food insecurity" as well. How many people allocate funds to illegal drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and gambling  that could be allocated to food? Understanding the root causes of situations allows the development of more nuanced and effective remedial policies.

Sophia Keenesburg
Sophia Keenesburg

@Liz R  Paycheck to paycheck does not say anything to you?

And on the minium wage  after all the costs for rent, energy, car (to get to work)  .... how much is left for food?

1 in 4 children lives in poverty ...  1 in 4  yes USA.

Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

@Richard Hovey I agree, but it's the Democrats and Republicans in Washington that need to be held accountable.
"They pay to support corporations that park an estimated $2 to $3 trillion in offshore accounts, who move jobs overseas, and relocate their headquarters to countries where they'll pay less in taxes, despite the fact that actual taxes paid by corporations are already at a historic low. "
It's called the IRS Tax Code.
None of those things should be legal.  Hold your US Representatives hand to the fire.  All they need to do is change the law.  Problem solved.

Wonder Mike
Wonder Mike

I choose between rent or food. Luckily my job allows me to eat my residents food so i can manage about one meal a day if im scheduled to work through one of their meals.

Wonder Mike
Wonder Mike

Yeah, ill just put a farm on my apartments fire escape, im sure that'll work.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

@David Jones I take no illegal drugs, I do not smoke, alcohol is not common in my house and I get medical care at the VA.  I allocate use of my car to two times a month, I live in a town with no usable transport (no bus or taxi services), I have a Verizon landline ($70) with no extras, sewage and water ($70), no cable, internet is Comcast (they have exclusive monoply in this area) is $115, gas is $200, electricity is $400, taxes are about $300/mos, I live on $1300 SS/mos.  I fill my car up $40 once a month.  I am always late with my taxes and pray my gas or electric bill will be lower than usual. The nearest town where I can buy groceries is 17 miles away. 


You can see my costs are about $1255/mos out of $1300.  What do you suggest I do?  I expect to buy $400 worth of wood this summer for one of my two wood stoves for winter. 


I expect I will starve to death eventually.  And you probably think I am a stupid old woman...I have a PhD but my husband's time before death cost almost $500,000 in medical, hospital costs because he was a permanent resident with no insurance and pre existing conditions. I no longer have savings.


I paid most of that off from income and savings and was forgiven the rest. 


I never read about people like me.  We are invisible. 



James Lucier
James Lucier

@David Jones So that is a red herring tossed in for what reason?  The problem has to do with employers not paying their employees enough to pay rent and eat at the same time.  If you can't pay a living wage, you aren't enough of a big shot to hire people to help you get richer. 

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Wonder Mike Back in 2008 I had a period of brutally poor unemployment before I retrained into a new field. We had to break a lease on a house and move to a tiny apartment. 


Anyways I recycled some containers and spend about $10 at the hardware store to build 4 window boxes and bunch of upside down tomatoes and cucumbers.  Stuff like spices can be stupidly expensive and we probably grew $50+ of just basil and oregano.


J Taylor is right, the current American gov (obama bush or whoever comes in 2016) would never put Americans 1st by keeping our food in our nation. Food prices are going to explode and being able to grow even a little bit is going to become increasingly important. 

Maureen Walsh
Maureen Walsh

@Gwendolyn Mugliston @David Jones, I am sorry things are so hard for you.  Could you have a garden?  Or rent a room out?  When i was young, my husband lost his job and we had three small children,  we planted a garden and it was such a help in many ways. The food was great and it was so peaceful to garden.   also, our children loved growing and eating their own vegetables.   I hope something wonderful happens to you!

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Gerard Van der Leun @James Lucier Your right, calling out BS is clearly a knee jerk move that lacks insight. 


David's post is yet another version of the old "the poor deserve to be poor" Be it because they're not worthy in the eyes of your god or they cant help squandering their money on booze/ hookers/drugs or (insert you pet social evil here)


The vast majority of American poor are working poor. You try living off $7.25 an hour. Heck McDonald's infamously posted a "budget" for its workers that showed it was almost impossible to live on what it paid. It ended up revising its budget to include 1 full time 40/ week job and 1 30 hour/ week and it still came up short because it failed to include groceries, gas, assumed that you had low cost subsidized rent and had a ridiculously low car payment 


And this is from no less then Forbes, a conservative leaning financial website.


Share

Feed the World

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »