The children going hungry in America
Child poverty in the US has reached record levels, with almost 17 million children now affected. A growing number are also going hungry on a daily basis.
Food is never far from the thoughts of 10-year-old Kaylie Haywood and her older brother Tyler, 12.
At a food bank in Stockton, Iowa, they are arguing with their mother over the 15 items they are allowed to take with them. There is little money to go shopping for extras.
Apple sauce is in, canned vegetables, tinned spaghetti, meatballs and ravioli might be.
But when Kaylie asks for ground beef, she is overruled as their motel room does not have a fridge to keep things fresh – just a sink filled with crushed ice. There’s nowhere to cook, either.
It’s not the first time that the family has struggled to get hold of the food they would like – or enough of it.
“We don’t get three meals a day like breakfast, lunch and then dinner,” says Kaylie. “When I feel hungry I feel sad and droopy.”
Kaylie and Tyler live with their mother Barbara, who used to work in a factory. After losing her job, she was entitled to unemployment benefit and food stamps – this comes to $1,480 (£974) a month.
But they were no longer able to afford to live in their house, which along with bills cost $1,326 (£873) a month, leaving little for food or petrol.
Kaylie supplemented their income by collecting cans along the railway track near their old home – earning between two and five cents per can.
Tyler also helped out: “For mowing other people’s lawns, I got $10 and I put in six of it for the gas, and gave the rest to my mum for some food.”
Instead of shopping at the mall, Kaylie’s clothes come from the Salvation Army shop where, to her embarrassment, 60-cent shirts are allowed, but those costing $2 are “too much”.
One of their two dogs, Nala, has had to be taken to the pound to cut the bills further.
Rent on the motel room is around $700 (£460) a month, but trying to balance the budget has meant sacrifices.
Tyler says there are good days and bad days: “Sometimes when we have cereal we don’t have milk – we have to eat it dry.”
“Sometimes we don’t have cereal and we have milk. Sometimes when there’s a cooking show on I get a little more hungry – I want to vanish into the screen and start eating the food.”
The family are among the 47 million Americans now thought to depend on food banks. One in five children receives food aid.
In the area where Kaylie and Tyler live, one provider – River Bend Foodbank – has seen the numbers needing help rise sharply.
“It’s changed dramatically since the recession. We’re up about 30% to 40% in terms of the number of people coming forward,” says Caren Laughlin, who has worked with food banks for 30 years.
“That’s not only because so many people have lost their jobs, it’s also because the jobs that are replacing them are low paying. You cannot feed a family.”
Although Kaylie, Tyler and Barbara’s motel room is away from the children’s friends and very cramped for three people, the move has made their lives easier in some ways.
Child hunger in the US
- 16.7 million children living in ‘food insecure’ households
- District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida worst affected
- North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota and Massachusetts least affected
- Households headed by single women most likely to be affected
- Source: Feeding America
The children’s father is not around and, although her grandmother lives nearby and helps out when she can, her mother has found it difficult to cope.
“I’ve never seen it this bad. To get jobs it’s very hard,” says Barbara.
She is training to become a hairdresser, but does not hold much hope for the future.
“I seen a doctor… for depression. She put me on some anti depressants and Xanax for my panic attacks. I don’t even know if I can find a job when I get out of school. Or if it will ever get any better.”
In February, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to promise a rise in the minimum wage, to $9 (£5.90) an hour.
“This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead,” he said.
But families like Barbara’s, where parents have suddenly lost their jobs and children are going hungry, continue to concern food banks.
Many do not know where to find help and may feel ashamed about asking for it, says Mrs Laughlin.
“There are a lot of people coming who would never envision themselves being in this position.”
The problems are reflected across America, says the nationwide charity Feeding America, which operates 200 food banks and feeds 37 million people each year, including 14 million children.
It says that, in total, nearly 17 million US children live in homes where getting enough healthy food is not something they can count on.
For some families, cheap and easy to prepare food can mean unhealthy choices like pizza – increasing the likelihood of obesity and health problems later in life.
In many areas schools take part in a “backpack” programme, set up to deliver food parcels to the most vulnerable on a Friday – so that they have enough to eat over the weekend.
In eastern Iowa and western Illinois, the River Bend Foodbank now helps 1,500 children in 30 schools through one such scheme.
“Kids can focus better and pay attention better,” says Mrs Laughlin. “If you’re worried about what you’re going to eat when you get home that’s what you’re going to be thinking about – not what’s on the blackboard.”
Studying is also playing on the mind of Kaylie who, after another series of moves, is not attending school amid uncertainty about where the family will end up.
After leaving the motel, the family spent a brief spell in a house. But they could barely afford it and had to move again when their grandmother was no longer able to help with the rent.
Since then, they have stayed in three more motels, making it impossible for Kaylie to be enrolled in school.
Barbara hopes that will change if she manages to secure a trailer, which comes with a two-year lease and the chance to settle down.
For Kaylie, the chance to return to class is something she sees as vital.
“I really want to be in school. If you don’t get a good education then you don’t get much money, you don’t get a good job, you end up sleeping at your mum’s.
“You end up being behind a lot of rent and you get kicked out. You end up being homeless and then with no food.”
This World: America’s Poor Kids will be broadcast on BBC Two at 21:00 GMT on Wednesday 6 March.