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For America's Hidden Hungry There's Been Little Recovery

Clients of a food pantry in Brooklyn, New York discuss how they stretch their meals as help from food stamps has thinned.
Image: Food pantry client
Julia Davis, a 52-year-old who live in subsidized housing, poses for a portrait after she receives her groceries at a food pantry in Brooklyn, New York.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

The nation that feeds the world has trouble feeding itself.

Few places know this as well as the CAMBA emergency food pantry on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. The pantry is down the street from a pawn shop and a Kennedy Fried Chicken, across the park from posh Park Slope, and miles away from Manhattan, where, it's said, the food donations are better.

National food insecurity rates went virtually unchanged from 2012 to 2013, the latest available figures from the USDA, at 15.9 percent and 15.8 percent respectively. The number, a measure of whether all household members have access to enough food for an active and healthy life, hasn't returned to its pre-Great Recession levels of 11 percent. That means over 49 million Americans still aren't getting enough food to eat.

Julia Davis organizes her food at the CAMBA emergency food pantry in Brooklyn, New York.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

"While we're starting to see some improvements in the economy, food insecurity stays at stubbornly high levels," said Elaine Waxman, head of research for Feeding America.

At the Church Avenue food pantry, patrons scramble as a bag of potatoes breaks. A volunteer uses a bullhorn to keep the line of mostly black retirees, single mothers, low income housing tenants and homeless in check.

They enter CAMBA in small groups at a time, up a hand operated elevator, to a small storeroom halfway lined with a corridor of wireframe shelves. Today they can choose from the donated spaghetti, rice, juice, canned sardines, cereal, onions, beets and potatoes. The other half houses tables and lights for a hydroponic garden for fresh vegetables for the clients, but a leak in the roof has caused all the plants to be removed.

Stacks of brown rice wait for clients to take them home at the CAMBA food pantry in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

The pantry does its best to feed the forgotten, said pantry coordinator Lucila Santana, and guide them towards nutritious choices. But they are at the mercy of others’ generosity and the cupboards get lean over the winter. The district the pantry serves has a 22.3 percent food insecurity rate, according to the Map the Meal Gap 2015 report by food bank network Feeding America, released Tuesday, six-and-a-half points above the national average. That ranks it among the top 30 most food insecure districts in the country.

CAMBA is one of over 60,000 food pantries served by Feeding America that helps fill in some of the gaps left by reductions to federal food stamps, known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

A client gets help picking her food from volunteer Taylor Woods at the CAMBA food pantry.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

A recently proposed Congressional budget aims to restructure these benefits, which amount to an average of $29.40 per week per person, or $1.40 per meal. Supporters say it would give states more spending flexibility.

Opponents say it would cut food assistance to a population already struggling to put sustenance on the table. Among critics of the changes is actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who pledged to live on $29 in food stamps and, Ice Bucket Challenge style, called out others in social media to do the same.

Across the country, meanwhile, various politicians have proposed various curbs on food stamps, such as mandatory drug testing of recipients or laws that would forbid them from being spent on seafood or steak.

Those on food stamps know down to the dollar how much they have to live on. Clyde Robinson, a 79-year-old HIV-positive former hospital worker living on a fixed income, says his $46.75 a week in SNAP benefits only gets him so far. "When you have nothing of nothing we try to manage the best way we can."

"I got the meat, you got the rice, you got the vegetables... and everyone's stuff lasts a little longer."

They're also creative with the food that they do manage to get. Julia Davis, 52, sometimes collaborates with her neighbors at the SRO to make a bigger meal for everyone. "We come up with a meal and everyone helps put in," she said. "I got the meat, you got the rice, you got the vegetables... and everyone's stuff lasts a little longer."

Clyde Robinson, 79, poses for a portrait after receiving his food.Michael Rubenstein / for NBC News

For families, the math is even harder.

Christine Palmer, a 46-year-old unemployed single mother, relies on the food pantries after SNAP runs out to help stretch out the meals she makes for herself and her two special-needs sons, ages 8 and 9. Each morning she gets up at 5:30 to see them off to two different schools. Then, before she meets their school buses at 3:30 p.m., she tries to visit the benefits offices and food programs she can.

One day during their spring break, she had to bring her sons with her on the bus as she went to four different food pantries. They were all closed.

"I never used to be like this," said Palmer. "I wasn't rich but I never had problems where I had to look for help from nobody."

Over 49 million Americans classify as food insecure. Low-income, rural, ethnic minority and female headed households are at the greatest risk.Feeding America

Mapping the meal gap: click here to see what hunger looks like in your neighborhood

In the areas of the nation where food insecurity is highest, the situation has been likewise slow to improve.

"It's really the economy that feeds people best."

While Detroit has seen its number of food insecure people drop from 850,000 to 700,000, those left are struggling more, said Anne Schenk, vice president of Advancement at the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan. There, the meal gap -- the number of meals missed per week per person -- has risen to 3.3 meals per week from 3.2.

"It's really the economy that feeds people best," said Schenk. "The better-paying jobs we have in this area, that's what is ultimately going to turn this situation around."