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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama has set many ambitious goals for the nation. One of the lesser-known among those is to end childhood hunger within five years.

Right now, millions of kids live in households where getting enough to eat is a challenge. And the number of hungry children has been going up, not down.

So what exactly does ending hunger mean and what will it take to meet that goal? Well, over the next two days, we'll explore those questions through the eyes of one Pennsylvania family. Their struggle for food is constant, and fixing their problems won't be easy.

Here's NPR's Pam Fessler with the first of our stories.

PAM FESSLER: Hunger in America isn't starving children with bloated bellies as much as it is this: calculating everything down to the penny, just to get through the month.

Ms. CONNIE WILLIAMSON: A gallon of Kool-Aid - you take two packs of Kool-Aid, which is like, 20 cents a pack, and then you have to add a cup of sugar for each two quarts. So you're adding two cups of sugar, plus the 40 cents for the two packs of Kool-Aid.

FESSLER: But if you drink iced tea...

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: I get a hundred tagless tea bags for 99 cents. And I use eight tea bags, so that's basically eight cents for a gallon of tea, and I use one cup of sugar.

FESSLER: Meet Connie Williamson of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She, her husband and their three children drink iced tea a lot.

The family's been in and out of poverty for years now, and Connie's had to be very creative.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: I've got a boy that's 8, and two girls - that's 14 and 18.

FESSLER: And the 18-year-old is pregnant.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: And then I have a sister and a brother-in-law that are here more days than not.

FESSLER: They're homeless right now.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: So it makes it a challenge for the food to stretch sometimes.

So let's load them up, dude, so we can get there.

FESSLER: Challenge is putting it lightly. Connie is a heavyset woman, her hair pulled back into a no-nonsense bun. She has an exhausting routine, trying to feed the family. She says if I want to tag along, I'd better wear my running shoes.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Come on.

FESSLER: Today, it's a trip to the local food pantry. Nine-thirty a.m., everyone piles into the family van: Connie, 8-year-old Alex, 14-year-old Beanna, Connie's sister and brother-in-law. On the way, they pick up Connie's mother. It's the end of the month, and food stamps are running low. Connie says she does what she has to do. She isn't ashamed.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: A lot of people don't like to talk about the down times when they go through them. To me, this isn't a down time; it's a way of life.

FESSLER: The Williamsons are among millions of American families that have trouble getting enough to eat, and almost l7 million children live in such households.

Connie used to work, but stopped because of bad arthritis and asthma. Her husband, Butch, a high school dropout, supports the family on $18,000 a year with a job at a machine shop. Some years are better than others. When the Williamsons were homeless not long ago, they lived in a tent and ate cold food from cans.

Unidentified Child #1: What, can you get me a banana?

Unidentified Woman #1: There you go.

Unidentified Child #1: Thank you. Can I have grape juice?

Unidentified Woman #3: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, you can help yourself, honey. Anything you want, dear.

FESSLER: At the Project SHARE food pantry, the Williamsons are greeted with snacks - fruit, juice, cereal - something to take the edge off before they enter the pantry warehouse. Volunteers there help Connie fill her cart with food.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Hello.

Unidentified Woman #2: Would you care for an eggplant?

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Sure. My kids actually like that, fried up.

FESSLER: Families like the Williamsons rely on a patchwork of government programs to survive: food stamps, subsidized school lunches, nutrition aid for pregnant women.

Unidentified Woman #2: Blueberries...

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Sure.

Unidentified Woman #2: They're frozen.

FESSLER: Food kitchens and food pantries, like this one, help fill in the gaps.

Unidentified Man #1: Here's your milk. Have a good day now.

FESSLER: After about 20 minutes, Connie's basket is full. But this will only feed the family for about a week. They also get $600 in food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But those won't arrive for another two weeks.

After visiting the Williamsons, I decide to see how the Obama administration plans to help them. I go to the Agriculture Department in Washington, where Undersecretary Kevin Concannon is leading the anti-hunger effort.

Mr. KEVIN CONCANNON (Undersecretary, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Department of Agriculture): Our goal is to provide a systematic and a reliable way for children across the country to get adequate nutrition 365 days a year.

FESSLER: That's a very tall order. He says the administration hopes to fill it by spending billions more on child nutrition, although Congress has yet to go along. The administration is also trying to make programs like food stamps more accessible. Many people who are eligible never apply.

But Concannon says helping people like the Williamsons involves a lot more: education, health care and a good economy.

Mr. CONCANNON: Are people getting jobs, particularly in different income sectors, and are they getting regular income? That's what I want to see.

FESSLER: So does Connie Williamson, although she's not sure it's in the cards for her family anytime soon.

I meet up with Connie again after her SNAP benefits arrive.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: We are heading to Karns. Karns Prime and Fancy Foods, it's called.

FESSLER: As she does each month, she spends the day looking for bargains to help make the benefit stretch. Despite its name, Karns is where she gets some good deals - although today, things don't look so promising in the produce department.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Strawberries aren't on sale. Corn is too expensive. Oh, my god, Brussels sprouts are up to 3.49 a pound.

FESSLER: A big disappointment. But around the corner, Connie hits pay dirt: cereal on sale.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: This is the big box, for $2. I got the little box for $2 last month. So I'm very happy with that find, indeed.

FESSLER: She loads more than 20 boxes into her cart. She also buys meat -chicken, cold cuts, ground beef - and some ice cream and cheese. But this is just the first stop. We go to two more bargain stores, where Connie buys bulk food like canned green beans and beets, and staples like sugar.

We also stop at a farm stand run by the food pantry to get fresh fruit and vegetables gleaned from area farms. Well, you have to be careful what you pick.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: I don't know.

FESSLER: Is it a mango?

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: It looks like it might be, or might have been at one time.

FESSLER: Some corn nearby looks a lot better. There's a limit of three ears per family, but Connie has a way to deal with that.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Actually, what you do with them is you husk them down, you break them in half before you throw them in the water, then you've got enough for the whole family.

FESSLER: After about six hours, with a break for lunch, we're done. Connie says if food gets scarce later in the month, she and her husband will skip meals before the kids do.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: That's a beautiful color.

FESSLER: Back home, Connie inspects her purchases.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: That's going to be meat to feed God knows how many people.

FESSLER: For now, the Williamsons face an uncertain future. Pregnant daughter Lizzie will get government help feeding her baby, but she's yet to finish high school. And 8-year-old Alex no longer gets subsidized breakfast and lunch. His parents took him out of the public school because of behavior problems. He now takes classes at home, online.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: What do you want for lunch today?

Mr. ALEX WILLIAMSON: A corndog, or a PB and C sandwich.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: Now, tell her what a PB and C sandwich is.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Peanut butter and cheese.

FESSLER: Alex looks at me through wir-rim glasses and grins.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: I don't knock it because he's getting extra protein without the sugar. That's a - Alex original.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: Mommy.

FESSLER: But after his mother heats up a corndog, he decides to take a walk with his sister, Beanna, and his lunch sits on the counter uneaten.

Connie says her 14-year-old daughter is the family member most interested in healthy eating. She's just cut up the fresh fruit her mother brought from the farm stand.

I ask Beanna later if she ever worries about getting enough to eat.

Ms. BEANNA WILLIAMSON: When I was younger, I kind of did. Now, I necessarily don't. My mom has more perfected the technique of making it stretch. I myself can do just about as well as her.

FESSLER: And she says if things do get tight, she can go to the soup kitchen down the street.

You'd think the Williamsons might be discouraged by all this. But instead, Connie Williamson thinks her kids have learned some important lessons.

Ms. C. WILLIAMSON: This way, I can teach them to check unit prices, sale prices, learn what's a good price, what's not a good price, what's an average price not to go over, basically, for buying meat per pound and that kind of stuff. It'll make them frugal from the beginning instead of frugal when it's necessary.

FESSLER: What it won't necessarily do is get them to eat the most nutritious foods. That's something the Obama administration says is crucial to ending childhood hunger. We'll look at that tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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