President Obama has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015. That's less than five years away. But, if anything, the number of hungry children in America has been going up. In 2008, almost 17 million children lived in households where getting enough food was a challenge. At least a half-million didn't get enough to eat.
The Williamson family of Carlisle, Pa., is among those who struggle for food. They've been in and out of poverty for years.
Connie Williamson and her husband, Butch, have an 8-year-old son and two teenage girls, including one who is pregnant. Connie says her sister and brother-in-law also spend a lot of time in the Williamsons' small apartment because they're homeless right now.
"It makes it a challenge for the food to stretch sometimes," she says.
Soup Kitchens, Food Pantries
A "challenge" is putting it lightly. Connie, a heavy-set woman who wears her hair pulled back into a no-nonsense bun, goes through an exhausting monthly routine trying to get enough food.
Once a month, the family goes to the local food pantry. At 9:30 a.m., everyone in the apartment piles into the family van — Connie, 8-year-old Alex, 14-year-old Beanna, Connie's sister and brother-in-law. On the way to the pantry, they pick up Connie's mother. It's the end of the month, and food stamps are running low.
Families like the Williamsons rely on a patchwork of government programs to survive. Soup kitchens and food pantries help fill in the gaps.
Connie says she isn't ashamed of what she has to do. "A lot of people don't like to talk about the down times when they go through them," she says. "To me, this isn't a down time; it's a way of life."
She used to work but stopped because of bad arthritis and asthma. Her husband, a high school dropout, supports the family on $18,000 a year from a job at a machine shop. Some years are better than others. When the Williamsons were homeless a few years ago, they lived in a tent and ate cold food from cans.
At the Project SHARE pantry, the Williamsons are greeted with snacks — fruit, juice and cereal — something to take the edge off before they enter the pantry warehouse. Volunteers there help Connie fill her cart with food — eggplants, potatoes, milk, blueberries, boxes of macaroni and cheese.
After about 20 minutes, her basket is full. But this will only feed the family for about a week. They also get $600 in food stamps from the program now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But those don't arrive for another two weeks.
When they do, Connie spends a full day driving around looking for bargains, to make the benefits stretch.
"We are heading to Karns — Karns Prime and Fancy Foods, it's called," she says, sitting again behind the wheel of her van.
Despite its name, Karns is where Connie gets some good deals, and she's especially happy to see that there's a big sale on cereal.
"This is the big box for $2," she says, grabbing boxes by the armload. "I got the little box for $2 last month. So I'm very happy with that find, indeed."
She also buys meat — chicken, cold cuts, ground beef — and some ice cream and cheese. Then she goes to two other bargain stores to buy bulk food, such as canned green beans and beets, and staples, such as sugar.
She also stops at a farm stand run by the food pantry to get fresh fruit and vegetables gleaned from area farms. The corn looks good, but there's a three-ear limit per family. Connie has figured out a way to deal with that.
"You husk them down, you break them in half, throw them in the water, and you've got enough for the whole family," she says.
After about six hours, with a break for lunch, she's done. She has a trunk full of food — which should last about two weeks — and $103 in food stamps for the rest of the month. Connie says if food gets scarce, she or her husband will skip meals before the kids do.
White House Anti-Hunger Efforts
Hunger in America isn't about starving children with bloated bellies, as much as it is about having to calculate everything, down to the penny, to get through the month.
The Obama administration hopes to help families like the Williamsons in a number of ways. Agriculture undersecretary Kevin Concannon is taking a lead on the anti-hunger effort.
"Our goal is to provide a systematic and a reliable way for children across the country to get adequate nutrition 365 days a year," he says. He thinks it's an achievable goal.
The administration has asked Congress for $10 billion in additional spending on child nutrition programs, including expanding the number of low-income children who can get free or reduced-price meals at school, and even after school. Lawmakers are supportive but worry about too much new spending. Bills now working their way through Congress call for lower amounts.
Concannon says the administration is also trying to encourage more healthful eating and is taking steps to make programs like foods stamps and subsidized school lunches more accessible. Many people who are eligible now don't apply.
But Concannon knows that poor families face many problems. Getting food is only one of them. He says helping people like the Williamsons involves a lot more — like a good education, health care and the economy.
"Are people getting jobs, particularly in different income sectors, and are they getting regular income?" he says. "That's what I want to see."
Connie Williamson does, too — but she doesn't see it in the cards for her family anytime soon.
For now, the Williamsons face an uncertain future. Their pregnant daughter, 18-year-old Lizzie, will get government help for feeding her baby, but she has yet to finish high school. And 8-year-old Alex no longer gets subsidized breakfast and lunch. His parents took him out of the public school because of behavior problems. He now takes classes at home, online.
Daughter Beanna, who is 14, has learned over the years how to cook and says she doesn't worry too much about food.
"When I was younger, I kind of did," she says. "Now, I necessarily don't. My mom has more perfected the technique of making it stretch. I myself can do just about as well as her."
And, she says, if things get tight, she can always go to the soup kitchen down the street for a meal.
You might think the Williamsons would be discouraged by all of this. But instead, Connie thinks her kids have learned some important lessons.
"This way I can teach them to check unit prices, sale prices, learn what's a good price, what's not a good price, what's an average price not to go over basically for buying meat per pound — and that kind of stuff," Connie says. "It will make them frugal from the beginning instead of frugal when it's necessary."
She hopes that means that when they grow older, they won't have to scramble so much for food.