Child Hunger: Nutritious Food Tough To Afford

The Obama administration has pledged to end childhood hunger in the U.S. by 2015. Millions of kids cannot get enough to eat at home, and that number is going up, not down. NPR's Pam Fessler and Share our Strength founder Bill Shore talk about childhood hunger and the tug of war between nutrition and frugality.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Nearly 17 million children, more than 20 percent of the kids in this country, struggle with hunger. President Obama vowed to put an end to childhood hunger by 2015. So far, though, the problem is getting worse, not better.

And as we learned this week in a series of reports on NPR News, the problem does not lie in a lack of food but in the inability of millions of families to pay for it or know what benefits they're entitled to.

Later in this hour, kings, queens and bodice-rippers. Historian Alison Weir will join us. But first, do you have trouble feeding your children? Did you go hungry as a child? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us here in Studio 3A is Pam Fessler, NPR's national desk correspondent. Nice to have you on the program today.

PAM FESSLER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And when the government says 16.7 million children live in households where they struggle to find enough to eat, what exactly are they talking about?

FESSLER: That's a good place to start because we hear these figures about almost 17 million children struggling with hunger. Actually, those numbers refer to 17 million children who live in households where there is a struggle to get enough food.

That means that sometime during the course of the year, somebody in the household might have had to cut back on the food that they're eating. They're struggling to make ends meet.

It does not mean that those children are missing meals. In fact, in a lot of those households, if somebody does have to miss a meal, it's almost always going to be the adult.

But within those numbers, the Agriculture Department believes that there are about half a million to a million children who in fact do during the course of the year have to miss meals and don't get enough nutritious food.

CONAN: Don't get enough nutritious food. But we're not talking about, as you said in the piece, children with bloated bellies and that sort of thing.

FESSLER: Right. Hunger in America is a little bit different than what some of us are used to seeing in maybe some Third World countries, of a child with a bloated stomach.

CONAN: To give us some idea of this, of how this worked, you profiled a family in Pennsylvania and followed them as the mother, as she went around trying to, well, make her food stamp money stretch for a whole month, $600 for a family of five, and going around to various food pantries and the various there was a lot about calculations.

FESSLER: Exactly, and that was the thing that really struck me, is that they were able to make ends meet. They were able to pull things together, but it was this constant need to focus on every detail, about how much everything cost, how to prepare foods to get the most out of them.

They knew exactly what hours the food pantry was open. They knew when the soup kitchen was open. They knew she knew what foods she could get where at the best prices. And it was, you know, an obsession that I think that a lot of people generally don't have to have with what they eat.

CONAN: And going through the calculations, I remember the one, that the Kool-Aid, the two bags of Kool-Aid to make a gallon costs, what, 40 cents between the two of them, and plus you have to add the sugar. You could do much better, it was cheaper, to get tea bags, 100 for 99 cents, and one spoonful, one cupful of sugar, and so you drink a lot of iced tea.

FESSLER: Right. So she calculated that this was not only more economic, not economical, but it was also healthier because there was less sugar.

CONAN: So healthier is another aspect of this, and it is curious that in this country the people who sometimes struggle with having enough to eat can also be obese.

FESSLER: Exactly, and that's one thing I was struck when I was reporting on this piece, that hunger, it's a very complicated issue. It's not just getting enough food, but you also it's the issue of what food you do get and what choices you make with the food that you do get.

And a lot of people who are poor and who do struggle with food issues do tend to be overweight. And one reason is that some of the food that's available to them is and costs less - happens to be higher calorie, more processed. They might have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And as a result, some of them do tend to be overweight or that they just aren't educated to know what food is better for them.

CONAN: Again, going back to your piece, the mom talking about - well, I could buy leaner meats and fresh fruit and go through my budget within a week and a half.

FESSLER: Right, and also, you know, if somebody is hungry, you might be trying as a parent to fill up that child with extra calories so that they won't complain about being hungry.

CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in this conversation. NPR's Pam Fessler is our guest. You may have heard her series earlier in this week on hunger in America, focusing particularly on children, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Stephanie(ph), and Stephanie's calling us from Cincinnati.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi, am I on the air?

CONAN: You are. Go ahead, please.

STEPHANIE: Great. My family was on food stamps when I was a child, and I had the same question for my mom: How can we be poor and my brother be fat? It didn't make any sense to me.

But what is available to poor people is often the least healthy foods, the high-corn, high-soy foods that we've made cheap through monoculture. And also, we often didn't have a car, and we would have to rely on the local convenience store, and they never have fresh vegetables or fresh fruit or anything like that. So cars can - transportation can be an issue, as well.

CONAN: I wonder, Stephanie, if there's something you at a lot in your childhood that you decline every time you see it on the table as an adult.

STEPHANIE: Well, not that I actually have to keep myself away from dry cereal. My brother and I were both kind of dry cereal junkies because that was an easy, light thing that we could carry home from the store and eat a lot of and fill up on.

CONAN: Well, all right, a lot of Raisin Bran, perhaps, in your background. Stephanie, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

STEPHANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Reinforcing some of the things that you said.

FESSLER: Yes, I think the caller makes a very interesting point. There are a lot of areas in this country which have been named food deserts, and there are areas, a lot of them are in inner-city areas where and poor areas where there are not a lot of grocery stores. There are not a lot of options.

And as this woman mentioned, somebody might have to go to a corner store, a convenience store, that has only processed, high-calorie foods. They really don't have an option, especially if they don't have transportation.

I also think that when you're poor, a lot sometimes it's very busy being poor. You have to it takes longer to get places. You might have to struggle to work longer hours. And you might not have time to prepare a healthy meal for your children. It might be easier to just come home late at night and, you know, put, do a box of mac and cheese, you know?

CONAN: Yeah, open a can or...

FESSLER: Right, right, or open a can.

CONAN: Tammy's calling, Tammy from Dayton, Ohio.

TAMMY (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Tammy, you're on the air.

TAMMY: Yeah, I just really have agreed with everything I've heard so far. I've lost two jobs in two years here in Ohio, and I feel guilty just accepting the school lunch program for my kids because I don't really like what they're eating, and I don't feel it's healthy, but I need to do that to stretch the food stamps longer.

And I don't want to complain because I know I have options I'm sure people in other countries don't have, but I don't I try not to use anything from the food pantry because I know there are people here in Ohio that have already run out of their food stamps and unemployment that need that more than I do.

CONAN: Nevertheless, those are benefits that you're entitled to.

TAMMY: That's true, but those food pantries run out, and you know, friends I have who have been out of work longer than me are the ones that I'd rather be able to get that.

I mean, we're not nobody is hungry, but I sure don't like having to get some of the food choices I do when I can drive by the farmers market that has fresh corn and vegetables that the food stamps don't pay for. So we get the canned and frozen.

CONAN: Pam?

FESSLER: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, obviously, food pantries and food banks around the country are seeing much, much longer lines, ever since the recession. A lot more people are coming there for services.

But it was interesting, in the series that I did, when I was speaking with the woman who runs the local food pantry in the town where the family lived, she was saying that, you know, they're struggling. The food pantry is also struggling. They don't have that many you know, they have much higher demand than they have products.

She said now she can during the course of the month can offer a family either milk or orange juice but not both, that they don't have enough funds to do that.

TAMMY: That's definitely true here in Ohio. I know the food pantries are always hurting.

CONAN: What's your must difficult choice, Tammy?

TAMMY: The most difficult choice I think is I would much rather have my children pack a lunch during the school year than eat what they eat at school, always the gross pizza. And I'm just really disappointed in the food that they get at school. And so sometimes I let them pack, and you know, they'll pack a nice peanut butter, or they'll pack a little bit of ham and cheese, something that's better than what they're going to get at school.

CONAN: Okay, thank you very much, and Tammy, we wish you good luck getting a job.

TAMMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye. Here's an email. This is from Dave: Poverty and hunger that results from poverty today drives my life goals. My mother once had a jar of change stolen when I was child, and without our small network of friends we would have gone without food entirely. It's hard for me to recall, but I expect she went without food a few times.

And Pam, that has to raise the question - you say, well, you know, maybe a family, an adult has to skip a meal. This is 17 million that's maybe missed one meal a year or something like that. This can have a pretty long-lasting psychological effect, you'd think.

FESSLER: Yes, I think, you know, even if the child themself does not miss the meal, just having to see their parents skip a meal - they might not notice it. You know, the parents might say, oh, well, I'm just not hungry today.

But I think, you know, the kids eventually might see just I think what I noticed, this family, the children, who are there's two teenage girls and an eight-year-old boy, especially the teenagers, they noticed that their mother was stressed, that she was stressed by this issue.

So even if they didn't notice that she was missing meals or skipping meals, they could see the stress that this was bringing upon the family, just having to worry about food.

CONAN: Email from Jessica in Portland: I grew up in a household that for a few years struggled to get food. I basically lived off cereal, milk, noodles, frozen vegetables and Country Crock.

I never talked about it others until much later in life. I never realized how much it hindered me. It affected my ability to eat for the years that followed. Good food would make me nauseous. To this day, 10 years later, though I joke about it, I cannot eat or smell Country Crock.

I think that the emphasis on food stamps should always be with nutrition, possibly some materials to help people deal with the psychological effects of not being able to afford food. Is there anything like that happening?

FESSLER: Well, that is one of the things that the administration, the Obama administration, as well as a lot of anti-hunger groups in the country are trying to do, and members of Congress.

There is a child nutrition bill that's working its way through Congress right now, and one of the things that it's trying to do is to encourage healthier eating, to provide incentives for better school lunches, as one of the previous callers mentioned - healthier, higher nutrition standards, incentives for more fruit and vegetables, things like low-fat milk.

CONAN: Okay, we're talking with NPR's Pam Fessler this hour about her series on childhood hunger. Call and tell us if this is your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk @npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the problem of childhood hunger this hour. NPR's Pam Fessler just concluded a series on food insecurity. We're exploring what it might take to make sure the millions of children who struggle with hunger have enough to eat and how to balance the problems of nutrition and necessity.

If this is your story, if you have trouble feeding your children, if you went hungry as a child, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now here in Studio 3A in Washington is Bill Shore, founder and executive director of Share our Strength, an organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger in the United States. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. BILL SHORE (Founder, Executive Director, Share our Strength): Thanks, thanks for having me.

CONAN: The Obama administration set that 2015 goal, and we noted earlier, it seems to be getting worse, not better. Is that a reflection of the recession?

Mr. SHORE: I think the recession has had a lot to do with it. We've seen record levels of hunger in this country. When you think that for the first time in history, more than 40 million Americans are on the - now the SNAP program, formerly food stamps, that one...

CONAN: A plastic card these days.

Mr. SHORE: Electronic Benefits Card. But that's record levels of hunger. The key, though, and I think one of the reasons that Obama set this goal, is that most of the ingredients in place for ending hunger are already there.

CONAN: And those ingredients are?

Mr. SHORE: Programs like the school breakfast program, the school lunch program, summer feeding. They're not being fully utilized. As I think Pam made the point, the issue is not lack of food. It's not even lack of food and nutrition programs. It's lack of access to those programs.

CONAN: And sometimes that is a lack of people understanding they are eligible for these programs.

Mr. SHORE: Sometimes it's lack of understanding and lack of awareness. Often it's lack of the cities or the states actually putting in place what they need to do so that people can be fed.

So for example, of the 18 million kids that get school lunch, all 18 million are eligible for summer feeding during the summer when the schools are closed. Only 16 percent of those kids are getting summer feeding because some communities have not looked for alternative sites, Boys and Girls Club, Department of Parks and Recreation, that you would need when the schools are closed. The irony is if you do, federal dollars flow into those communities.

CONAN: So just seems to need to get up - these systems up. Nevertheless, Pam was also talking about this big bill that's going to be making its way through Congress. This is going to be expensive. There is already a lot of concern about federal spending right now. It's not going to be a slam dunk to get this through Congress.

Mr. SHORE: No, it won't be. You know, there, there you know, this is the amount of money at stake here is kind of a rounding error when you think of what we invested in, things like banks and auto companies. But nevertheless, there will be some deficit concerns.

The important thing to remember, though, is these are programs that work. They've had bipartisan support for more than 35 years. So I think there will be a child nutrition reauthorization. It may not be quite at the level at the level that the president's been urging, but I hope that it will be.

CONAN: There are some people who have said that these given the programs that are available, given the food stamps that are available, given the places you can go to buy things cheaply, that when kids are having difficulties with hunger, it's a function of poor parenting.

Mr. SHORE: Well, look, parents are always going to be the first line of defense for their children, and parents need to have their act together. They need to know what benefits they're eligible for, and they need to parent well, and not all parents do.

I think the bigger problem, though - I think that's a legitimate problem, the much bigger concern is communities that may not have put in place the programs that these kids are entitled to.

And you know, of all the suffering that's taken place as a result of this session(ph), the least unnecessary aspect of that is hungry kids, because we have programs that work.

CONAN: Pam go ahead, I'm sorry.

FESSLER: No, I was just going to say, one point I think is important to make is that nobody really believes that just expanding these programs to the people who need them is going to end childhood hunger, that it's a lot broader than that, that it also includes things like an improved economy, better education, that it's much broader issue, that a lot of people who suffer or are at risk of hunger have many problems.

They might be health problems. They might be education problems. And a lot of it is getting access to jobs and income. So that actually is also part of the Obama administration's plan to end childhood hunger, is to get jobs for people.

CONAN: Is this 2015 goal realistic, do you think?

Mr. SHORE: I think it is realistic. It'll take a lot of work to get there, but we're close, and if you look at some of the progress that's been made, for example in Maryland, Governor O'Malley decided that he wanted to make a huge difference on this issue. He ordered state agencies to work with community groups. They increased their participation in a program like summer feeding by 17 percent, more than any other state except for one, except for West Virginia.

So Pam's absolutely right. Hunger has always been a symptom of a deeper problem, which is poverty, but in terms of actually getting people the supports they need, governors and mayors and others have the ability to do that.

CONAN: And one big factor that might improve this is if the economy would improve and if people got more jobs.

Mr. SHORE: Absolutely. There is no alternative to economic growth, and not just economic growth because even during the Clinton years, when we had a lot of it, we left behind some 35 million Americans who stayed below the poverty line. So we need economic growth that brings those people into the economy.

CONAN: And just to go back to the series you did, Pam, with this one family -the father made, I think, $18,000 a year, some years better than others, in his job, way below the poverty line for a family of five. And at one point, when they were out of work, sleeping in a tent, living in a tent, eating cold food out of cans.

FESSLER: Right. This family actually has been in and out of homelessness several times, and the mother told me if she wasn't getting all of this support from food stamps, the help from the food pantry, that she believes that they would be homeless again.

And when they were homeless, it's this having to patch together all these different programs, and you're just barely on the edge of surviving.

CONAN: And the odd thing is, you think of people who are getting government assistance. The stereotype is that they are, you know, they're somehow well, I'll use the word - laziness is involved, that they're just receiving.

This woman lives a very busy life trying to make this, these few benefits stretch to cover everything she needs.

FESSLER: Exactly, and the husband is working a full-time job, maybe not making a lot of money, but he is working full-time. It's not that they're just sitting around waiting to get these benefits.

CONAN: Bill Shore, if there was one thing that you could snap your fingers and make happen that might do the most to eradicate childhood hunger, what would that be?

Mr. SHORE: I think at this moment I would get as many Americans as possible on the phone to their representatives to Congress and to senators, because this legislation has passed the House committee, it's passed the Senate committee, it's waiting to come to the floor, and it is at a tipping point, and this is a place where citizens and voters can make a huge difference on an issue that is solvable.

CONAN: Bill Shore, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. SHORE: Thanks.

CONAN: Bill Shore, founder and executive director of Share our Strength, and he was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Let's get some more callers in on the conversation. Amber(ph), Amber is calling us from Ann Arbor.

AMBER (Caller): Hi, how are you? I just wanted to make the comment - as a full-time college student, single mother of two, it was some of the most nutritious eating that my family did on food stamps, because I didn't buy stuff that was bad for us, and I cooked everything from scratch.

I know that the time thing is huge, and I had a great background for it. My mom taught me how to cook. My grandmother taught me how to cook. And buying whole carrots and peeling them and chopping them up was not a big deal to me.

But it's possible. You just with less meat and meatless meals and dried beans and fresh vegetables, it's really possible to eat really well if you put the time into it.

CONAN: Well, time, as we suggested, in the family you're profiling, Pam, was not the issue. They put a lot of time into it. But sometimes the choices aren't available.

FESSLER: Yeah, and also it is just knowledge. A lot of food pantries and food banks now are starting to offer a lot more nutrition classes, cooking classes for their clients, so that they can take this food that they do have and make it the most, you know, the most nutritious meals that they can, to be a little more creative.

A lot of food pantries, like the one that I profiled, are starting to have fresh farm stands, where they are getting produce that's gleaned from area farms to give to people who are poor.

CONAN: And there are also farmers markets that do accept these plastic cards, where you can use them.

FESSLER: Exactly, the SNAP benefits, or formerly food stamps. And I think there's just so much more knowledge. Even as a country, we're so much more health-conscious, and that is also permeating this whole world of trying to help people who are poor and struggling with food.

CONAN: Amber, thanks very much.

AMBER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Kay(ph), Kay with us from Scottsdale.

KAY (Caller): Hi, (unintelligible) my call. I grew up in a family, single parent, we were on food stamps, and there were a lot of times we were so over-involved in the public school systems, just because they were opportunities for, you know, lunches or after-school eats and stuff like that on top of all the activity.

At home, I really hardly ever ate anything. It was really, really meager. A lot of it wasn't really the best stuff in the world - you know, sugary cereal and whatnot. But it got to be where I'm so busy all the time, and I'm a grad student now - I have to keep myself on a regimen of food because I don't have an appetite for food anymore.

(Unintelligible) like, I wouldn't eat hardly at all when I was younger, and now I don't want to eat, and so it's like I don't feel a sensation of hunger. And so it's really hard for me to want to eat and eat healthy and take the time to cook, and I do.

But it's it really affected because I never had an eating schedule as much when I wasn't in school. Summers were always really hard. And so I can see how that's affected me as an adult, where it's like I can work and work and work and not go out and eat or just grab something really quick at Taco Bell or something, and it's not healthy.

CONAN: It's not healthy. I wonder if you've spoken to somebody about this.

KATE: Yeah, and it's - it adds, in fact - my doctor has just made sure - he's like, well, just basically, you know, I have to eat, like, at least four times a day, because I just - I cannot even think about it now because food really wasn't ever a big part my life when I was little. Like, we - I was hungry and I was always so involved, I didn't realize that. It wasn't ever something, oh, my family is poor and we don't, like, the amount of food other people have. It was never a realization to me.

So now, it's like I have to - my life is like Planters and fruit now, and living right do it, like - it's a big thing being in the desert, too. I mean, I have to be well nourished or I get, you know, you can get heat stroke. And I have had that happened before (unintelligible)...

CONAN: And this does not sound like a classic case of anorexia, but nevertheless this can be a real problem and you do need to keep in touch with your doctor on this.

KATE: Oh, yes.

CONAN: All right. Kate, good luck to you.

KATE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email that comes in anonymously. Thought you might appreciate the irony of this. I work as a teacher in low-income schools. Having been raised on welfare, I had to relearn good nutritional habits in college and I try to model that behavior in my classroom. However, on a teacher's salary, I can only afford to bring in low-quality snacks to feed my students that come to school hungry, but what I bring in is better than what they get in the cafeteria.

So the emphasis on the school lunch programs. And, as we said, the caller in Ohio was complaining about the grotesque pizza that they sometimes have there.

FESSLER: Exactly. And I think one of the things that's driving this need to end or this desire to end childhood hunger besides the moral issues, there are a lot of people who feel that - or have seen that hungry children don't learn as well, and that is hurting them in the long run. It's hurting the country in the long run. They're - have difficulty. Teachers report that hungry children come into their classes and they're - they just don't pay attention.

We also have health care costs. There's concern about long-term health care costs with children who, not only are not eating, but maybe not eating the right foods. We have about a third of the children in this country now are considered to be overweight or obese.

CONAN: Email, this from Kate(ph) in Harrisonburg, Virginia: At our local farmers market, they recently began accepting food stamps. So the first $10 you put on your SNAP card each visit, they will double it thus stretching the food budget. I will gladly have my money go to the local community for healthier food for myself and my boys. That sounds like a good idea.

Here, this is Gayle(ph) from Ann Arbor. Here in Ann Arbor, a major Michigan-based food retailer has a website that creates meals for a family's week that includes what the store has on sale and sometimes manufacturers' coupons. This method helps family's meals that average about $2 per person, and that's a good thing.

We're talking about hunger in America, particularly with children. Pam Fessler is our guest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Sonny(ph), Sonny with us from Holland in Michigan.

SONNY (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I had a recent experience with an extended family gathering, where we were going to the store to get supplies for ice cream sundaes. And all of us were reaching in our wallets to chip in a little bit. My brother-in-law spoke up and said, oh, I've got a bunch left on my food stamps card, why don't you take this? So off to the store, we went and got ice cream and hot fudge and syrup and all kinds of other things and came home.

And the whole time I was thinking about the irony of the fact that we had just bought all of this totally unnutritious(ph) food for people who didn't need it. And I know that's an anomaly, but I don't think that any food should be able to be purchased with food stamps. And if we require that only healthy foods or the healthier type of foods be purchased, then we will have cost savings on the other side, which is Medicaid and Medicare, where many of the same people are receiving benefits there for diabetes and high cholesterol and all of these things that come from eating unhealthily.

CONAN: Well, Pam?

FESSLER: Some people actually have made that suggestion. You know, why can't the government restrict what you buy with your food stamps and as the caller mentioned only allow healthy food to be purchased? And it's - at least the administration's response has been, administratively, it would be absolutely impossible to administer that and to monitor in each grocery store what people are buying with their food stamps and that they think a better approach is to just have this better education.

CONAN: Well, they're not allowed to buy beer or tobacco.

FESSLER: Right. There are certain - actually, there are certain things that they can't, but as far as what kind of combination of food that they buy.

CONAN: And, Sonny...

SONNY: Can I add one thing to that?

CONAN: Go ahead.

SONNY: Well, I think that that's maybe an easy out by the administration if they're saying that because, I mean, obviously, you can't buy beer and other things. But also, you know, for those on WIC, they can very easily restrict the parents to buying certain types of cereals and milk and eggs and not allow them to use that money for other things.

So I think the process and the infrastructure is already in place, it just needs to be put in. And I'm sure that food lobby has a lot to say about that as well. But...

CONAN: As a, though, recipient of the SNAP - the food stamp money, I mean, might you wait a minute, the government is telling me what I can buy and what I can't buy. Please. I can make those choices for my family and I don't need a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., to tell me I can buy this of that and not that of this.

SONNY: Yeah, they certainly can, but they need to use their money to do that, not that public money.

CONAN: All right. Sonny, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SONNY: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Jason(ph) in Rock Hill. I grew up in a relatively rural area. We hunted deer and grew our own veggies. However, years when neither I nor my father killed a deer were much tougher economically. I wonder, are they major differences between rural and urban areas in terms of food shortages? Do you know, Pam?

FESSLER: I'm afraid I don't know...

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FESSLER: ...if there's much of a difference. But, you know, obviously, the food desert issue of people having access to grocery stores that is both in rural areas and urban areas, there is not much difference in that.

CONAN: And this from Rica(ph) in Grand Rapids. I work for the masons at Michigan. Many lodges throughout the state have made donations to local food pantries. It amazes me that despite the importance of access to quality food and nutrition education, so little attention is paid to it by the average American. It's almost as though unless people experience hunger personally, they lack a frame of reference that allows them to empathize with those in need.

Given that, I wonder what kind of response have you gotten since these pieces aired.

FESSLER: Well, it was interesting, we got a - quite a - on our - especially on our website, we got a lot of negative comments about the family that I profiled. There were a lot of people who said they couldn't believe that a family of five would have trouble living on $600 in food stamps a month, that they felt like, you know, that if they were frugal, that they would be able to survive on that. And there were also complaints and, you know, lack of understanding of how somebody...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FESSLER: ...could be overweight and be struggling with food, which I think we've talked about that issue before, that it's, obviously, sometimes it's the options that are available to them.

I think one of the more interesting things I encountered when I was reporting this story is that the woman who ran the food bank, the local food bank, said that as the country becomes healthier, she's actually getting some less nutritious things being donated, some of our castaways, like more sugar cereal.

CONAN: Huh.

FESSLER: ...that she was getting donated than - she used to get high-fiber cereals.

CONAN: Pam Fessler, great series. Thank you very much for it.

FESSLER: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Pam Fessler, who works for our national desk. Coming up, off with their heads, in some cases, their bodices. We'll talk with Alison Weir. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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