Do you know what food insecurity looks like? This woman's story might change your mind.

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.

Photo by Bonnie Kittle/Unsplash.

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.

Photo via Feeding America

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.

Photo via Feeding America

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.

The issue has begun to garner more media attention, and on the national level, many companies and organizations are mobilizing to take action.

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.

Photo by Nicolas Barbier Garreau/Unsplash.

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.”

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


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Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

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