Nicki Amos knew that finding dinner was going to be a stretch.
It was evening in suburban Phoenix, and Amos, a single mother with two young girls, was going through a rough patch. She had a job as a cashier, but it barely covered her expenses. Rent was a monthly burden. So were her water bill, her electric bill … even paying for gas.
With money so tight, she even took a risk and drove her car without reregistering it. “I was very strategic in my driving to make sure I didn’t end up in front of an officer,” she says.
Amos and her family, present day. Photo provided by Nicki Amos.
But there was one other serious challenge: Amos had to figure out how she was going to feed both her daughters and herself.
She was under a lot of pressure. Something had to give.
So that night, after making sure she had dinner for her kids, she searched for an affordable meal for herself. What she found was meager, but for the time being, it worked. Amos and a friend, also a divorcee, drove to a restaurant with a bar, where they found a happy hour with complimentary snacks. They nibbled on the finger food. And then Amos went home.
It was a desperate attempt at a meal, but this wasn’t the worst night she’d had.
On other nights, Amos had to skip meals entirely in order to make ends meet.
After all, she says, her first priority was always her children’s well-being.
Amos' daughters. Photo provided by Nicki Amos.
“As long as the kids were OK, I was OK,” she continues.
She made sure they had a nutritious dinner — even if that meant preparing what she affectionately called “potato chip casserole,” a mishmash of the remaining foods in her cupboard and fridge.
“There was probably a vegetable of some sort and a protein mixed in,” she says. “It was whatever we had and probably a can of cream of mushroom soup.”
But she couldn’t afford to treat herself with the same care. She’d skip a meal here, skip a meal there. She was just doing what she had to do, she reasoned.
And though she bore through her struggles and eventually secured a better job as a district manager of Fry’s, the grocery retailer, Amos had faced a stark reality.
Like millions of other Americans, she was food insecure.
It’s an issue that inspired her to become an activist herself. She began volunteering at the St. Mary’s Food Bank, a nonprofit organization, and later even joined their board of directors. All the while, she spoke out about the broader issue of food insecurity — and the harmful misconceptions about hunger in America.
“It’s not only homeless people who face food insecurity,” she says. “It could be one of your children’s friends. It could be someone you go to church with. And you wouldn’t know it.”
This isn’t just one person’s speculation about a social issue. According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some 41 million Americans were food insecure in 2016. That’s about 12% of U.S. households that, at some point throughout the year, struggled to obtain enough food.
And millions of food-insecure Americans actually belong to ordinary households. Think: two parents, two kids, a house, and a steady income.
For these families, food is often part of an impossible calculus.
Should they buy fresh milk or should the money go toward a gallon of gas? Enough meat for the whole family or medicine for one person?
“Invariably the casualty is food,” says Diana Aviv, the CEO of Feeding America, a national nonprofit that runs food banks across the U.S.
Aviv says that many large-scale issues force people to make these tough choices. For one, underemployment is widespread: Too many people work part-time and can’t find full-time work.
Many Americans also don’t have a lot in savings. One survey, for instance, found that 57% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings accounts. With so little reserves, it isn’t hard to imagine how an unexpected ER visit could force a family to cut back their eating.
Aviv says that public policy can hurt people too. Certain federal programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, help families pay for the cost of food. But in many cases, if you make even just a little too much money from your job, you don’t qualify for the assistance.
“Those families in some respects are even worse off,” she explains.
But if so many people are struggling, why don’t we hear about it more? The answer is simple: People are embarrassed to admit they can’t pay for food.
Over the last year, Aviv traveled the country doing in-depth interviews of people facing hunger. And she found that shame often keeps people from sharing their stories.
“People were incredibly embarrassed about their situation,” she says. “Children in school are not going to put up their hands in classes and say, ‘I’m hungry, please give me food.’”
“They’ll be isolated, and there’s a fear that they’ll be teased by their classmates. And so a lot of food insecurity is hidden.”
But the tide does appear to be turning.
One campaign called Zero Hunger Zero Waste, spearheaded by The Kroger Family of Companies, a founding partner and major donor to Feeding America, aims to reduce America’s massive problem with food waste, while at the same time helping to end our widespread problem with hunger.
The campaign aims to provide 3 billion balanced, nutritious meals to food insecure households by 2025. And they’re well on their way — the campaign has already donated 330 million meals. They’re also advocating for public policy solutions to address hunger in the United States.
These efforts highlight the changing attitudes around hunger in America.
“Don’t let pride get in the way,” Amos says. “I’m sure nobody knew what I was going through because that’s not something you want to share with other people. But there are great organizations out there that can help.”
A change of attitude is also key for those who are food secure. It’s important to remember that individuals may be struggling — even if outwardly they look fine, Amos says.
Amos also stresses that,with food insecurity such a widespread phenomenon, we should feel called to action.
“I can’t imagine that many children are going to bed and may be hungry,” she says. “I can’t accept that.”