National Geographic News
Photo of a man transporting his daughter in a stroller on a busy road to a shelter in Houston, TX.

A young father braves the highways of Spring, Texas, north of Houston, to reach a homeless shelter for a free meal. Aid at shelters and food banks is crucial to many low-income people, whose nutrition often is undermined by a reliance on cheap, processed foods that are high in salt and fat.

Photograph by Kitra Cahana, National Geographic

Andrea Stone

for National Geographic

Published August 18, 2014

Dusti Ridge leans on her cane and waits patiently for her number to be called at Bread for the City, a food bank in southeast Washington, D.C. When she hears "56," she steps into the nonprofit group's pantry to find out what she'll be eating for the next week.

Kale, green peppers, yellow tomatoes, and dried cherries—perfect for a favorite brown rice recipe—go into her shopping bag. So does a whole chicken. But she passes on canned green beans; too much salt, she says.

Ridge, 62, has been coming to the food bank once a month for more than a decade, and takes pride in choosing "exotic" foods that some of the charity's clients avoid—like the venison that was donated recently after deer in a local park were culled.

Ridge is typical of millions of Americans who rely on food banks to survive: She is in poor health and lives on disability payments as she undergoes chemotherapy treatments for ovarian cancer. But as a nationwide study released Monday by the nonprofit group Feeding America makes clear, the number of people who rely on food pantries, soup kitchens, school lunch programs, senior citizens' Meals on Wheels deliveries, or other food initiatives to supplement their daily diet is a complex and growing mosaic that cuts across the nation's demographic lines.

About one in seven Americans—more than 46 million people—rely on such programs to get by, according to the study, which involved confidential surveys of more than 60,000 recipients of food aid from groups affiliated with Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks that distribute donated food to programs in all 50 states.

The ranks of the hungry include 12 million children and 7 million seniors, plus millions more among the working poor, military families, the unemployed, and young college graduates. Those in each group said their reliance on food aid stemmed from a daily struggle to put healthy and nutritious food on the table when all that many can afford is inexpensive processed food that fuels a cycle of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

A graphic of hunger facts.
NG Staff. Source: Feeding America, Hunger in America National Report 2014.

The study, called Hunger in America 2014, comes nearly a year after the U.S. government reported that a record number of low-income Americans—more than 47 million—were receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The study by Feeding America found that just 55 percent of those who get aid from its affiliated programs also received food stamps. One in five said they had never applied to the federal food stamp program because they believed they wouldn't be eligible for such help.

The study's suggestion that perhaps 20 million or so people are receiving local food aid but are not getting federal food stamps indicates that the scope of America's hunger problem is likely well beyond the enrollment figures reported by any one aid program—and could touch about one-fifth of the nation's population.

"Feeding America is feeding more people than ever before," said Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for the group. "The public-private partnership in addressing hunger in America is essential."

Photo of several women at a food bank in Lihu'e, Hawaii.
Puna Dawson, left, helps to distribute goods at a food bank in Lihue, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. About one in seven Americans rely on such community-based aid for at least some of their food, according to a new study by the nonprofit group Feeding America.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Creative

A "Vulnerable Population"

The number of households the U.S. government considers "food insecure," meaning they don't always have enough to eat, was 17.6 million, or 14.5 percent, in 2012. Among those whose hunger leads them to the nearly 100,000 food pantries, meal programs, and other food agencies in the Feeding America network, 84 percent said they suffer from food insecurity.

Such households "have a particularly vulnerable population," said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, who was not involved with the survey.

The Feeding America survey's findings are in line with those in a recent National Geographic report, "The New Face of Hunger." Feeding America's survey found that many Americans seek food assistance on "an ongoing basis, reflecting persistent need." It also provides a snapshot of those who seek aid from food banks and other local programs across the nation:

●      Forty-three percent are white, 26 percent are African American and 20 percent are Latino. Nearly one in four households reported being multiracial, a reflection of the nation's increasing diversity. One in ten white households seek out food supplements, but those with minorities are much more likely to need assistance, the study found. It said that one in four African American and one in six Latino households in the United States were served by community food programs.

●      One in five of the adults receiving aid from local food programs said they had attended college; nearly 6 percent reported having a four-year degree or higher education.

●      More than half of those surveyed were considered to be among the "working poor," meaning their wages were not enough to lift them out of poverty. About 54 percent reported someone in their household had a job. But in most of those households, the longest-employed person worked only part time. About 72 percent of the households surveyed reported living at or below the federal poverty line, which in 2014 is an annual income of $23,850 for a family of four.

●      620,000 households, or 4 percent of those getting food assistance, include someone serving in the military. When veterans are added, more than one in four military households suffer food insecurity, the study said.

●      79 percent of those in households receiving food aid said they bought the cheapest food available, even though they knew it wasn't always the healthiest.

Photo of a pile of bagged bread on a table with a picture of The Last Supper on the wall at a food bank in East St. Louis.
Loaves of bread and other goods lie before an image of the Last Supper at a food bank in East St. Louis, Illinois. Across the U.S., those receiving help from such food programs include 12 million children, 7 million seniors, and millions more among the working poor, military families, the unemployed, and young college graduates.
Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic

Tough Choices, Poor Nutrition

Feeding America officials said the findings about aid recipients' nutrition and health were among the most alarming results in the report.

"We find it particularly staggering that more than half of the households that we are serving report that someone has hypertension, and a third have diabetes," Daly said. "We know that these are chronic diseases that are intricately related to food intake—not just accessing food but accessing nutritious food. It's really illuminating why hunger is a public health issue."

The survey also asked clients how they make ends meet, and found that coping often means not paying the electric bill to buy food instead. Or walking instead of taking the bus to save money for lunch. Or forgoing medicine or a visit to the doctor in order to eat.

Food bank clients also reported getting bargains on food that was in damaged packages or past its expiration date, and watering down food or drinks to make them go further.

"The people we are serving are forced to make very difficult choices on a daily basis between food and other basic needs, like keeping a roof over their head, turning the lights on, getting to and from work or their kids to school," Daly said. "These are choices nobody in the wealthiest nation in the world should have to be making."

Those are familiar choices to Dusti Ridge; while undergoing treatments for cancer, she must lug around a gallon-sized plastic bag carrying 17 prescription drugs for various other ailments, including diverticulitis and kidney disease.

The District of Columbia resident says that she has to make tradeoffs and be creative to make sure she has enough to eat each month. That means no going to the movies, and when she shops for food in grocery stores, she goes only to stores that double the value of coupons.

"I don't go anywhere without my coupons," Ridge said, fishing a handful from her bag. "I just got $50 worth of food for $19. I think that's pretty good."

Read our hunger story
15 comments
David Jones
David Jones

I wish the article had touched on the hunger problem related to alcohol and drug abuse. A number of people and many kids I have known have been malnourished because of the diversion of resources to feed these habits and the neglect individuals show to themselves and their dependent children. Food stamps, open pantries and soup kitchens can not really address these kind of problems unfortunately.

Kathy Fullmer
Kathy Fullmer

It is quite possible to be overfed, but under nourished. People need to be encouraged to use the really economical foods of whole grains (like rice, oats, barley) and legumes (like pinto beans, Great Northern beans). hose foods can help combat diseases like diverticulitis, diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis. his problem has an obvious solution in plant based nutrition. A public education program would go a long way o alleviate hunger in this country. What is keeping us from going there?

edward  danielski
edward danielski

I read the article in your August issue and was flabbergasted.  It is ludicrous to state that "hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin".  What a ridiculous statement. !  People who are receiving food assistance need to take responsibility for themselves and make better choices on what they eat.  

That the government has coined the term "food insecure" is just another example of double-speak, leading us on the path of self destruction through reliance on subsidies.

It was interesting to note that it is possible to eat well and cheaply but it takes resources (?) and KNOW-HOW that  many low-income Americans don't have.  Why don't they have the know-how ?

One Iowa mother was cited as TEACHING HERSELF !

If people want to eat well and not be hungry they need to rely more on themselves.  Where is the personal responsibility in this country ?

Kim Pascal
Kim Pascal

Crazy how much food the US throws OUT every day.

D Carlson
D Carlson

It's a shame. With $.50 Ramen noodles, people are going hungry, but they are nutritionally starved and probably don't even know it.

Noel Watts
Noel Watts

we can do better . We should get our country hunger free first before giving what extra food and resources we have to other countries .

Mind Bird
Mind Bird

Over half haven't applied for and would not be eligible for food stamps---because food banks don't ask the same questions about family resources and how they are spent. There are working drug addicts and people with a small income who take in a few foster children, and then this is how they feed the children, on the rare occasion they call them inside from running the streets unsupervised and actually feed them.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

There is just no excuse that this many people in a country like ours should be going hungry. When it comes to this issue, both here and abroad, we as a civilization are woefully inadequate in our efforts. If we can fire off rockets worth 10's of thousands of dollars each, a Tomahawk @ over 1 million each, then certainly we should be able to find the resources to feed the hungry.

Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

I have watched documentaries on other cultures, and in some of the more remote locations, the folks were actually happy! they don't have anything from the "outside" world, and they live the way we should be living. Everything they have is made by them, grown by them, and hunted by them. They even celebrated the changes of the seasons, and are a more "family" oriented tribe of folks, so to speak! That is a "big" difference in comparison to the way that folks in a developed nation are living. But, alas, in this country all our officials think about is the next big payoff.

Paul Scutts
Paul Scutts

This is a very sad situation that is reflected in all the countries that participate in the Global Economy. The GE is nothing but a scheme to increase the wealth of a minority at the expense of an increased majority. It has been, without a doubt, the most despicable economic  system ever "sold" to the world. Take a moment to investigate who have been and still are its greatest advocates and beneficiaries.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@edward danielski  You are so right, "Where is the personal responsibility in this country?". Although I believe in Social programs to help the, "truly" needy, that concept has turned into, "entitlements and a free ride". In a general sense it seems we have gotten complacent, fat and lazy and always looking for the easy way out, with regards to our domestic affairs anyway. We are on our way to becoming a Welfare state in every sense of the word. Instead of grabbing the bull by the horns and making some significant changes in our Social attitude and Programs, we toss some coin at it and hope it will go away. Time to show some, "tough love", get rid of the, "handouts" to those whom are capable, and reestablish the concept of, "Personal responsibility". That is what made this Country great to begin with and the lack of which is why we find ourselves in the position we are in.

Be Well

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Kim Pascal  Ms. Pascal, what a pertinent observation and something for all to think about.

Be Well

George Lynn
George Lynn

@Michael Bell Yes Michael, I totally agree, but we have too many ppl in Wash. that really don't give a damn about nothing but lining their pockets, and to hell w/ the hungry, children or not.


George H. Lynn

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