Amy Bardwell never expected to be picking up free groceries at her neighborhood food pantry. But she worries every month about how to scrape together the money needed to pay her family's rent and utility bills and still have enough left over for food.
A few years ago, Amy and her husband, Otis, who are parents of Edmund, 3, and Lydia, 7, were living comfortably in the Los Angeles suburbs. When Otis decided to go back to school for a master's degree, the college-educated couple felt sure it would make him even more employable as a college art instructor. "He wanted to shift away from office administration," explains Bardwell, who now works part-time as a nanny, bringing Edmund with her. "We heard that lots of teachers were approaching retirement age, which would create all these new opportunities." But by the time Otis graduated in 2008, the recession had hit and the job market dried up. "He cobbles together work as best he can, picking up one class here, one class there, but he's been underemployed for more than two years now and we're just barely making it," Bardwell confesses.
In order to put dinner on the table, the family has cut back every expense they can. They've deferred student loans and they pay cash for everything to avoid credit-card debt. "It can feel surreal because we live in a pretty affluent neighborhood -- I see other moms getting together for coffee at Starbucks, which I can't do now," says Bardwell. "One of the most discouraging things is not being able to afford the piano lessons and gymnastics classes that our kids see their friends taking. I hate for them to miss out." Bardwell tries to put a positive spin on their situation when she talks about it with Lydia and Edmund. "I try to say that everybody needs help sometimes, and right now we're getting help from some nice people," she explains. "I also talk about how it's important for us to help others. I'll hand them a quarter to put in the Salvation Army bucket, for example, so they get a sense of what it feels like to give as well as receive."
She admits that she's worried about other people's reactions when she's reached out for help. "I've had to get over my own preconceptions, where I'd think, 'Oh, you just need to work harder,' or 'Don't waste your money on the nonessential stuff,'" Bardwell admits, getting teary-eyed. "Because now it's my son's birthday and I really want to buy some frosting to put on the cake mix we got at the food pantry. And that's a nonessential. But it just doesn't feel that way when it's your child."
The family hasn't missed a meal yet, but Bardwell isn't sure where they'd be without regular trips to the food pantry. Many nights, they eat rice and beans, sometimes with a canned vegetable on the side. "We're so thankful for the help, but it can be frustrating because it's not, 'What do I feel like cooking tonight?' anymore," Bardwell adds. "It's, 'What did we get and will it be enough to keep everyone well fed?'"
The Bardwells are four of the more than 50 million Americans who worry about having enough to eat today, a number that has climbed nearly 40 percent since the start of the recession in 2007. It's a group that now includes more than 17 million children, meaning one in four American kids are what the United States Department of Agriculture classifies as "food insecure," or living in a household that has difficulty providing enough food for all of its members. The states with the highest food-insecurity rates are, in order: Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. Households with children report food insecurity at almost double the rate of childless households, and Feeding America, the nation's largest network of food pantries, says the number of children using its services has jumped 50 percent in the past four years. Nearly half of its clients are now in suburban and rural areas, an increase of 58 percent from 2006.
Families with babies and young kids are the ones who are least likely to be getting enough to eat -- and these children are also the group that suffers the most from being malnourished. Though hunger gets the most media attention around the holidays, summertime is actually the roughest stretch for many children because they can't rely on free or low-cost school-provided breakfasts and lunches to get them through the week. "Before the recession, we had a lot of families living very close to the edge," says Parents advisor Irwin Redlener, M.D., president of the Children's Health Fund. "Now, they have fallen off the cliff."