• July 24, 2014

Kitra Cahana on Hunger in America: The Suburbs

I recently interviewed three photographers who covered hunger in America for the feature “The New Face of Hunger” in the August issue of National Geographic magazine. They explored what it looks like for individuals and families to be food insecure in urban, suburban, and rural areas of our country.

Kitra Cahana travelled to the suburbs of Houston, Texas, to photograph people who get by with the assistance of food pantries—meaning they often don’t have enough food, or don’t have a enough nutritious food to keep them healthy. She talks about some of her experiences in the featured video and the conversation below.

Picture of Jacqueline Christian sitting in her car, praying over a meal she is about to eat
Jacqueline Christian, a home health aide and mother of two in the Houston suburb of Spring, says grace before a lunch of supermarket sushi. With a full-time job that requires constant driving, Christian often buys takeout meals. When food runs out, she picks up dinner for her sons from McDonald’s dollar menu and tells the boys she’s already eaten.

COBURN DUKEHART: Tell me about this assignment. How did it come about and how did you end up in Texas?

KITRA CAHANA: Susan Welchman, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic, asked if I would be interested in photographing this story dealing with food insecurity in America, and I was so happy that the magazine was choosing to do a story about this issue. It’s something that I’ve encountered previously in my travels, and in the work that I’ve done across the United States. I immediately said “yes” and started researching as much as I could about the issues and the dynamics at play. To me, it’s a huge responsibility to work on a story like this, and to try to convey to our audience just how hard it is for so many people.

Approximately 23 million Americans live in food deserts, and in those locations vegetable prices and the price of healthy food in general is so much more expensive than processed food. And it’s crazy to me that you have a country with so much, and people aren’t eating properly.

Picture of a woman eating a meal on a hotel bed
Rosemarie Patronella, 74, east a lunch of ramen noodles and buttered rice in her room at a Ramada in Houston. Patronella is a retired schoolteacher who carefully stocks up on food from charities to ensure she has enough.

COBURN: So it’s not just that people are making poor choices about what food they eat. It’s that they just don’t have the choices to make?

KITRA: You know, the statistic is that 1 in 6 Americans are food insecure, so I just don’t think you can point a finger at a sixth of this country and say “you’re just making bad choices; if you were making better choices, you wouldn’t be in this position.” The fact that there’s 1 in 6 Americans that are living in a food-insecure state, that, to me, indicates a systemic, structural problem and something very fundamentally wrong with our value system.

And we’re not just talking about people who are unemployed or who are disabled or who are elderly. A huge number of the households that receive government assistance are working parents.

We went to Texas because it has the highest number of SNAP recipients in the country—3.5 million people in Texas receive SNAP benefits, and out of that number over half are working parents. And then we further decided to go to the suburbs because there’s a nationwide trend now where there are more people living beneath the poverty line in the suburbs than even in urban or rural environments, and that’s never been the image that anyone has had of suburban living.

My time on the outskirts of Houston was really eye-opening. A lot of the people I encountered—they might have lived middle class or even affluent lives previously, and then something—one piece, one cord gets pulled, and then everything else just unravels around them.

COBURN: You have a picture of a mom with her baby, and bottles in the foreground, can you tell me about this situation?

KITRA: This woman Cynthia, she told me that during her pregnancy, all she ate was cereal. That’s all they had in the household, cereal, cereal, cereal. Cereal for breakfast, cereal for lunch and dinner, and you can imagine the impact that kind of a diet has on a growing fetus.

Picture of Cynthia Santana with her four-month-old child in a suburb of Houston, Texas
Cynthia Santana, 22, and her four-month-old daughter, Vivian Carrasco, in their home in a suburb of Houston, Texas.

COBURN: Can you talk about the photos of this family in the suburbs? They have a big SUV and people viewing this might not really understand the underlying issues.

KITRA: I spent time in this one household. There’s four generations living under one roof, three families, 17 individuals. They live in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. From the outside, you wouldn’t expect that people are food insecure on the inside. Food insecurity is often a really hidden problem. People are ashamed. They don’t want others to know that they’ve skipped meals.

Another thing about food insecurity is that it is constantly vacillating, so there are times of the month where people are just feeding their children a tortilla and a little bit of cheese, and then other times of the month they’ll have a more normal-looking meal. That doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily eating lots of fruits and vegetables or that they’re eating a nutritious meal, but they’re able to at least walk away feeling full.

Hester Jefferson's great grandchildren play outside on the cars and bring in the groceries after Meme goes shopping for food outside her home in a suburb of Houston
Hester Jefferson’s great grandchildren play outside at their home in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas.

COBURN: So viewers might look at these photos and not fully understand that even if people have a car and nice clothes, they might still be struggling.

KITRA: If you live in the suburbs you need a car. And you need a car to get you to your minimum-wage job and to get back, and that’s part of the additional expense of living in a suburban environment. I met a woman who spends a third of her minimum-wage salary on her gas tank. Things are spread out. It’s not easy to get from one location to the next. Living in the suburbs is expensive, and that’s why for so long, it was a middle-class existence.

So people shouldn’t be surprised that poor families would have access to a vehicle in a suburban environment, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily own the car. That doesn’t mean that they are not falling behind on their payments, that then puts them in a real dire situation where they’re having to decide: “Am I going to make dinner for my kids tonight or am I going to pay my car bill this month?” You can’t play around with your car bill or your mortgage. There’s more flexibility with how much food you are going to put on the dinner table, so that becomes the place where people pull back.

And the assumption that everyone who is in a dire situation looks like they’re in a dire situation is wrong. I mean, there is so much stuff in this country. There’s an excess of material goods. One of my subjects said that she got her shirt for 25 cents and her pants for 25 cents—it’s second hand, and it looks fine. There’s an image of what poverty and hunger is “supposed” to look like, and that’s just not what it looks like in this country, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t struggling to survive.

Picture of Hester Jefferson's great grandchildren eating in her kitchen
All of Hester Jefferson’s great grandchildren are on the school lunch program, but on weekends they do not always have the food to provide three meals, especially later in the month. They rely on minimal food stamp benefits and occasionally visit food pantries.

COBURN: So is there anything that you hope viewers take away from seeing these pictures, or something you hope they learn?

KITRA: I don’t want anyone to look at the images I’ve made and point accusingly at my subjects. It’s easy to criticize anyone’s life story, especially those who have landed in a downward economic spiral. But to what end? There are so many people out there who have received blow after blow that have left them destitute—cramming four families under one roof, living in a motel or on the streets, or pushed to other inhumane extremes—often through no fault of their own. But even if you can look at someone and say: “Well if you hadn’t made this and this decision, your life would be better off, or your kids would be better off” well then what? Where does that leave us?

The larger question is what kind of a society do we want to live in? You might not be directly related to the people in these images, but it’s wrong to think that their lives are not interconnected with yours. Their ability to feed their children fundamentally shapes the world that we all have to share. I want the people down the street to feel nourished—physically, spiritually, emotionally. I want them to go through their day not having to worry about whether their kids will be fed or not. I want them to live without the stress, anxieties and abuse that comes so often with poverty. I want them to have good relations with each other. I don’t want them to be pushed to their limits. These desires are not utopian, it is simply a matter of societal priorities. Choosing not to prioritize the well-being of others condemns all of us.


See more of Kitra Cahana’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram.

Read the feature article “The New Face of Hunger” from the August 2014 of National Geographic.

The May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicked off an eight-month series about the future of food.

There are 23 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Diane1234
    August 8, 2014

    I work at a food pantry in one of the poorest neighborhoods in metro Atlanta. Our pantry is constantly running out of food. We have so many who work and cannot get to the pantry. They are trying to juggle utility bills, bus fares, rent, and clothes

  2. Kathy Hensley
    August 7, 2014

    I was coordinator of homeless services years ago. The system is set up for people to fail. The minute they make a bit of money, they lose their benefits, buy they are not allowed to accumulate any cushion. Therefore, any minor crisis puts them right back on on aid. It becomes a vicious circle with no way out. People should receive help until they can withstand an emergency car repair or some other setback.

    Food is available, but it is sometimes difficult (especially for the employed) to get it due to lack of transportation, impossible hours for food programs, or lack of storage, just to name a few difficulties. The food programs are mostly monthly and run by volunteers. God bless them. This makes things difficult for the recipient.

    We are being penny wise and pound foolish by cutting people off benefits until they can stand alone.

    It is criminal in this land of plenty for people to go hungry. The system needs a radical overhaul. I became ill and have now experienced both sides of this issue. With my unique perspective, I have volunteered to help with the system in my state, but no one here seems to think it’s a priority. Lucky for them, they have never gone hungry in order to pay a bill. They are not evil. They just have no concept of what people have to do to live on ssi or similar programs. It takes a lot of energy to be poor in the US. Everything is a drive, a waiting line, falling between the cracks, etc. This is especially hard if poor health put you in this position in the first place. It’s a no win situation. Overhaul is the only solution, and it should have been done years ago.

  3. a person
    August 2, 2014

    Why dont we try to help?

  4. Jacques
    July 29, 2014

    John has the good reflexion …I agree !

  5. Sam
    July 28, 2014

    Don’t assume that doing everything in the right order prevents problems. I had kids when I could afford them. Unexpected illness and death of spouse, we lost everything we had. The kids gave me a reason to get up and try. People were good and I was grateful for an education to fall back on. The point is we can’t control everything but the kindness we share makes a difference. My kids have learned the value of people, community and an education. I don’t miss the stuff that much. Glad to work, share, and be there for others.

  6. Ginny
    July 27, 2014

    @ Mike I agree, I am hoping she buys the sushi that is”hopefully marked down”…..( but rare to see in supermarkets I go to )Sushi is too pricey for me normally and I am rarely, rarely able to buy it even though I love it. I agree that you can get a great inexpensive sandwich at a supermarket. How? Go to the deli ask for a couple of slices of meat and a slice of cheese and if the store is a nicer one they will have a bakery with fresh individual rolls. More than likely they may have condiments like mustard, & mayo packets as well at the deli that you can ask for.

    Her sushi probably cost about $4-6 and the deli sandwich would have been about just under $3 if you ask for just a couple of slices of meat and cheese (on sale that week of course).

    I have done this and had a very filling meal. The store may even have chips for under 75 cents as a side to the sandwich. The biggest part of this is that she should buy lunch meat from the deli and cheese and a bag of sandwich buns or bread one of those plastic containers that you freeze and they keep your food cold and also buy the insulated bag to hold your lunch in.She would save money on her lunch daily . I know this lunch is not the most nutritious but she could buy lettuce and tomato too to put on the sandwich. It’s called being resourceful.

  7. John
    July 27, 2014

    Speaking for myself and my own experiences, I am middle-aged, recently lost my job, virtually broke, but continue to make nutritious food choices…which is first on my priority list. Without good nutrition, health falls apart and so on which entails medical bills, medicines, etc… Yes, junk food can appear cheaper, but that’s just one angle of a larger picture in that the long-term health expenses far exceed the small difference in the price paid at the grocery store. It has also been established that the three evils…sugar, fat, and salt…are addictive. Even if you had a level playing field with prices being equal, I have found a vast majority of low-income people I know always choose the more fatning or sugary version of a food product…which just makes them even more unhealthy. And, if time is a factor with cooking at home, do what I do…do all your cooking on one day and freeze everything in separate containers. In order to prioritize proper nutrition, I have eliminated what are so-called “necessities” in life…cable/satellite TV, cell phone in favor of a cheaper landline, and downsized my expenditures to the bare minimum of basic utilities and rent. You’d be surprised at what some low-income individuals consider “necessities” at the expense of good nutritional habits. Now, to my final and most important point: If an individual or couple are in anyway struggling to financially afford just themselves, then why on earth would you ever consider having a child…much less FIVE (or more), as depicted in the photo on pages 76-77??? Putting these children through such financial and nutritional hardships is no less than evil. Yet, this county…and the world, for that matter, seem to have this selfish obsession with having children just to have children…without grasping the full responsibilities and financial repercussions of doing so. Having children is not simply a right just because you can; it is like anything that must be planned and budgeted…like a car, food, utilities, etc… Yet, what we have here are people birthing a big screen TV and unable to properly feed it or afford the payments…and guess who foots the bill? As much as I would like to have children, I would personally never dream of having one/some at the moment simply due to what would be a very hard life for him/her. If you can’t afford it, for God’s sakes…don’t get it!!!

  8. Mike
    July 27, 2014

    @JohnIsAware: I believe that what you ar saying was the point of the original poster of that comment.

  9. Mike
    July 27, 2014

    But please don’t buy sushi (not even from the supermarket) when you are on the road all day for your job… It is cheaper, if you buy bread, cheese, lettuce, etc and make your sandwich at home and bring it to work.

  10. JohnIsAware
    July 27, 2014

    @Nana ”It’s either the large beautiful house or the three meals per day.”- That doesn’t make sense at all. Why not a small, ugly house and a full three-course meal? Just trying to understand the pov of someone from another country. I’m from India. We revel in being desensitized to the plight of others. It’s an adaptive mechanism.

  11. Nana
    July 26, 2014

    ..”They live in a beautiful suburban neighborhood…” when you are poor (as I am) you can’t have everything. It’s either the large beautiful house or the three meals per day.

  12. JohnIsAware
    July 26, 2014

    @Char Perhaps you should think about becoming a student again? That might help to rectify tea time gossip and shaking heads.
    Anyway, the poverty line of a developed country can not be compared to any under-developed one. It is tragic to read about the state of things and see the pictures. I did have a prior idea about the unfortunate affected population of America but to be reminded again, is good in a lot of ways.

  13. woody
    July 26, 2014

    How can I help?

  14. Krupa Gadre
    July 26, 2014


  15. Char
    July 25, 2014

    The student is uninformed. Often people do have a stable environment before having kids. But what happens if one or both parents lose their jobs? You can’t live off savings forever. Our what if there is a divorce and one parent won’t contribute? The burden is left to the custodial parent. Our a major illness happens that wipes out all funds? So many situations can happen. You are a student. Wait another 10 years and see if you don’t see things differently or at least more clearly.

  16. Jawn
    July 25, 2014

    There is plenty of quality, delicious, wasted food waiting in most dumpsters in your home town — behind supermarkets, bagel shops, cafes, etc. The amount of food these places throw away is disgusting, and readily available.

  17. BZ
    July 25, 2014

    This story just kind of solidifies my belief that people should not have children if they can’t support them. I can understand elderly people not having money for food as it is hard to live on the little bit of money they get for a pension, but why are people having kids and bringing them into a insecure environment? I am a student and have been for the past 4 years and by no means am I well off. I wouldn’t ever bring a child into the situation until I was financially able to support them. You shouldn’t have to decide if your going to feed your kids or pay a mortgage. You should have been in a stable environment before introducing a child into it.

  18. Adela
    July 25, 2014

    This situation is very real and true. Our business failed when my husband and I were in our late 30’s. My Dad died of cancer and I lost my job in his business, my husband turned to alcohol (expensive) to cope. We are still paying off the business loan – it was a family business and we have no restitution. To keep our children in the same house and school, I have planned every meal since. The kids understand that sometimes they have to wait for the wage to come in before they can have things but they wouldn’t know about the food situation. I know the food in my house down to the last cup of flour and our big fridge is often empty before my fortnightly shop.

  19. Rosine
    July 25, 2014

    Thanks for your report. I did not know the situation of food insecurity in the United States. I’m agree with your last sentence “Choosing not to prioritize the well-being of others condemns all of us”. I’ll keep it safely in my head.

  20. Christina
    July 25, 2014

    Amazing story. I appreciate the last statement made. Often those are so quick to judge.

  21. Tanya
    July 25, 2014

    My family is in a situation like this. I work a full-time job and two other part-time jobs. My husband also works a full-time job. We don’t qualify for assistance and we struggle every month to pay our bills and are lucky if we have $50 left every week for food and gas and we’re a family of five :/ it upsets me when I hear that our government wants millions of dollars to feed n shelter immigrants or people of other countries. I want to help others, but I work hard and my taxes goes to others who don’t contribute, while my family goes without

  22. joni armao
    July 24, 2014

    This was right on point. My husband and I see it everyday. Just because people are well groomed doesn’t mean they are not struggling. These people have jobs, but when you pay all the bills,like you said the dinner table is where they scrimp from. They usually don’t qualify for any food programs,or benefits but they are still hungry. This country needs to see these people also,not just people on ssi,or disability. These people are penalized for working,and paying bills. Its sad

  23. Chris
    July 24, 2014

    65% increase in suburban poverty and 30% increase in urban poverty since 2000. More and more are being left behind.

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