MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
The Obama administration has pledged to end childhood hunger in the U.S. by 2015. It's one of the president's many ambitious goals, and one that will be extremely hard to achieve. We've been exploring exactly what it will take to make sure that the millions of hungry children have enough to eat. NPR's Pam Fessler spent time with the Williamson family of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and she concludes our series with this report on how, in the family's struggle to obtain enough food, nutrition sometimes takes a backseat to necessity.
PAM FESSLER: Alex Williamson is an eight-year-old boy who doesn't look very hungry. In fact, he's a little chubby. But Alex is one of 17 million American children who live in households where getting enough food is the challenge. I met him early one morning as the family prepared to go to the local food pantry. But first, Alex got something to eat.
Ms. CONNIE WILLIAMSON: Ice pops, Mountain Dew.
Mr. Mr. WILLIAMSON: I don't care. I...
Ms. WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I knew you'd drink blue juice. Here.
FESSLER: That's blue juice from a popsicle. Alex's mom, Connie Williamson, says she tries to give him a healthy breakfast, but doesn't always succeed.
Ms. WILLIAMSON: When he gets up on his own, he'll go find what he wants. He'll get a hot dog bun. He'll get a piece of bread. He'll get an ice pop or something.
FESSLER: Hunger in America is complicated. I saw that again and again in the Williamson's home. It's not just about getting enough food, but getting the right food and making the right choices.
Connie Williamson says it's not easy on a tight budget. She spends hours driving around each month looking for deals. She has to stretch $600 in food stamps for herself, her husband, Alex and two teenage girls.
Ms. WILLIAMSON: You can get leaner cuts of meat, but then they're more expensive. You can get fresh fruit every couple of days and blow half of your budget on fresh fruits and vegetables in a week's time, easy.
FESSLER: The Williamsons live well below the poverty line. In the days I spent with them, I saw a constant tug of war between the best of intentions and some not-so-good eating.
Mr. WILLIAMSON: Here, Mommy, put hot peppers...
FESSLER: On one visit, Alex takes me behind their small apartment to see the family garden, several dirt patches lined with plants.
Mr. WILLIAMSON: There's some roses and bikini - and bikinis.
FESSLER: Do you think it's zucchini, maybe?
Mr. WILLIAMSON: Yes, wait. There's a tab right there. They are...
FESSLER: He checks a label on one of the plants.
Mr. WILLIAMSON: ...sweet peppers.
FESSLER: Alex's mother is also growing Brussels sprouts, some pretty healthy stuff. But earlier that day, when Alex was thirsty after a walk...
Ms. WILLIAMSON: I'm not making it full, because it's soda. Remember, you cannot shake a jug when it has soda in it.
FESSLER: His mother gave him a bottle filled with orange soda.
Elaine Livas, who runs Project SHARE, the local food pantry, says she sees it all time.
Ms. ELAINE LIVAS (Project SHARE): A gallon of milk is $3-something. A bottle of orange soda is 89 cents. Do the math.
FESSLER: Livas says low-income families might know that milk is better for their kids, but when it comes to filling a hungry stomach, a cheaper, high-calorie option can look pretty good.
So Project SHARE, like many food pantries and soup kitchens, is increasingly offering cooking and nutrition classes to help their clients get the most out of what they do have to eat.
Ms. LIVAS: 'Cause really, that's what we need, a transformation in how people view their relationship with food.
Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Good afternoon. So is it hot enough?
FESSLER: Which is one reason why one day after I visited the Williamsons, Michelle Obama welcomed hundreds of chefs on the White House lawn. She was encouraging them to volunteer at schools, to help cafeteria workers, students and their parents learn how to prepare more nutritious meals.
She noted that almost a third of U.S. children are overweight.
Ms. OBAMA: Good nutrition at school is more important than ever. A major key to giving our children a healthy future will be to pass a strong child nutrition bill.
FESSLER: Which a big part of the administration's plan to end childhood hunger. President Obama has asked Congress for a billion dollars more a year for child nutrition to do things like make school lunches healthier. Advocates say it will help kids learn better and reduce health care costs.
There's a lot of support on Capitol Hill, but lawmakers are also increasingly nervous about new spending. And in an exchange this month with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy of Louisiana raised these concerns.
Representative BILL CASSIDY (Republican, Louisiana): I have no doubt that there are kids that go to school hungry. But I have to admit, you know, every time I hear that we have an obesity problem and everybody's going hungry, how do you reconcile those two?
Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): Well, the hunger and obesity may have the same parent.
FESSLER: Vilsack said there's a similarity between low-income families trying to stretch scarce food dollars with high-calorie, processed foods.
Sec. VILSACK: And youngsters who are just flat-out not getting fed because their parents don't have the resources to feed them.
Rep. CASSIDY: I'm not quite sure I follow.
FESSLER: And Cassidy might still be confused if he took a trip to the Williamsons' kitchen in Carlisle. The refrigerator and pantry there are filled with food, but the family sometimes has to go to the local soup kitchen to make ends meet.
I asked eight-year-old Alex: Do you ever worry about food?
Mr. WILLIAMSON: All the time.
Mr. WILLIAMSON: I'm always hungry.
FESSLER: You're always hungry?
Mr. WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm.
FESSLER: But you've got lots of food here.
Mr. WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Sometimes I just crave some chocolate. If there's water or cantaloupe there, I just crave that stuff, then.
FESSLER: But do you always feel like you have enough to eat?
Mr. WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm. Besides when my mom makes Brussels sprouts for supper.
FESSLER: His 14-year-old sister Beanna, the family member most interested in healthy foods, tries to explain.
Ms. BEANNA WILLIAMSON: He more or less just worries about if there's going to be enough food that he likes or if we have something that he likes. He's really picky about what he wants. No, you're not eating anymore food.
FESSLER: Alex has just gone to the refrigerator for a snack.
Ms. B. WILLIAMSON: One piece of chocolate. If you eat one more if you eat more than one piece of chocolate, then you lose it for the rest of the day.
(Soundbite of crying, banging)
FESSLER: And to be fair, what eight-year-old to wouldn't choose chocolate over Brussels sprouts? But Elaine Livas of the local pantry says for the poor, a good diet is an important first step toward addressing their other problems with health and work and getting an education, that it's hard to make good decisions when you're hungry.
And she says there's something else to consider. As the nation becomes more health conscious, she's noticing less healthy food coming to her pantry.
Ms. WILLIAMSON: We can't really complain that the poor are heavier when what we're donating is our kind of castaways.
FESSLER: She's getting more sugar-coated cereals, for example, than the high-fiber ones she used to receive.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.