If you want to know what hunger looks like, look through the eyes of Tianna Gaines. The 31 year old Philadelphia native lives with her husband and three young kids in a simple, sparsely furnished row house. The kitchen is worn but very clean. "Roaches like water," Gaines says matter-of-factly as she wipes the counter.
She keeps dry-goods sealed in plastic bins. Cereal is stored on top of the refrigerator, in cereal-size plastic containers. "The mice eat through boxes," she explains as she reaches for a loaf of white bread. "We're out of whole-grain," she says pointing to the bright orange two-for-one price sticker.
For Gaines feeding her family properly is not just a choice, it is arguably a strategic obsession. She knows precisely when items get marked-down for clearance. "The Manager's Specials go first if you're not there by 9:00 in the morning."
She cuts coupons religiously, buys in bulk and makes her own dinner from the food left on her children's plates, something she and her husband Marcus call "Kid surfing." Oatmeal, eggs and rice are staples she keeps when the other food runs out.
In a country where grocery store shelves are overflowing, Gaines is among some 50 million Americans struggling to put enough food on the table. "A lot of people say, "Oh, she works two jobs, she must have it good." No I don't!" she says shaking her head.
The scientific term for hunger is "food insecurity" and since the US Department of Agriculture began keeping track in the mid-1990s, it has now reached an all time high.
"When someone is food insecure, it's the anxiety of not being able to afford enough food. You may have enough food for the day, but you're worried about tomorrow or you're worried about next week," explains Mariana Chilton, an expert on public health and nutrition who created the project Witnesses to Hunger and recruited Gaines, one of 40 women, to photograph their struggles with hunger and poverty.
"There's an implicit anxiety and depression and worry," says Chilton.
Among the most striking photos, a handful of coins, most of them pennies. Jean Culver, a waif-like mom with spiky blond hair who says she gets $400 a month in food stamps, snapped the picture at the end of the month. "That was all I had. I mean and so many things that needed to be done with that change. It's just overbearing. It's hard to handle. "
Culver says she first feeds her two sons, then eats what's left-over, "I feel like even if we have food if I eat a snack, for instance, then I'm taking it away from my kids."
Even families receiving the maximum amount of food stamps still need about $206 more every month to buy the minimum amount of food as defined by the USDA.
Barbara Izquierdo, 23, is another Witness to Hunger "sister," as the women call themselves. Several years ago, she had a newborn and no money to eat. Out of desperation, she says she took a pizza menu & stared at the pictures, reading the descriptions until the hunger pangs went away.
"I never thought that hunger could be as serious as it is. I never thought that I would be affected." Izquierdo now works for Coalition Against Hunger helping others in need. She says taking pictures has given her a voice to show lawmakers and policymakers first-hand what hunger and poverty are all about.
"For a long time I felt food was a privilege...no one should feel that way," says Izquierdo who hopes one day to go to college and become a criminal psychologist. "If I can change it now, when my daughter gets older she might not have to go through this."
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