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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.