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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Most Americans get plenty to eat. The Agriculture Department says 87 percent of us don't have to worry about where the next meal will come from, but that leaves more than 38 million people classified as `food insecure' by the government. They can't be sure about having enough food, and at times more than 10 million people actually go hungry.

SIEGEL: This week we'll be exploring this topic with visits to three families in a city, a suburb and a rural county. We begin today in rural southwestern Virginia, where eating sometimes depends on trade-offs that few of us have to make. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Smyth County, Virginia, was a place of plenty three centuries ago for native Cherokees and newly arriving pioneers. That's according to Glen Moorer, a Virginia park ranger standing along a tree-lined Smyth County creek.

Mr. GLEN MOORER (Virginia Park Ranger): The abundance of clean and quality water supply with the rivers that we have disecting about every area around here brought in a lot of wildlife: bison, elk. And, of course, the water fowl and things were also in the area. So I would say, yeah, it was an area that you could pretty much eat and live well.

BERKES: In fact, one Smyth County town is named Chilhowie, a Cherokee word meaning `valley of many deer.' Today 34,000 people live among the county's broad valleys, hump-backed mountains and narrow hollows. Hundreds left in the past decade as textile and other manufacturing plants sent jobs overseas. Most of the people remaining still work making bricks, furniture, socks, door frames, mining equipment and more. Most own their own homes, but some struggle even in Chilhowie.

Ms. WREATHA HANKINS (Chilhowie Resident): I see us as the working poor because Robbie is out there working. He's always worked, always been a hard worker.

BERKES: Wreatha Hankins sits on the porch of a two-bedroom, brick cottage up Cleghorn Hollow in Chilhowie. She's a small but stout woman, quick to joke and smile. Her husband Robbie works full-time at a cement plant. She works part-time as a substitute teacher. They have three children, and together they made about $22,000 last year. That's just below the federal poverty threshold for a family of five but slightly too much for food stamps.

Ms. HANKINS: We work. We pay our taxes. We do what we're supposed to do. We get no kind of help, except for the food pantry. The kids do get free lunches during the school year. We're the working poor.

BERKES: That makes the Hankins typical of the people getting a box of food a month from their local food pantry.

Ms. JENNIFER CROSS (Bread of Life Community Food Pantry): Actually nine-tenths of the people we have do work. A lot of them have jobs with no insurance. By the time they go to the doctor and buy medicine, then there's no money left for food.

BERKES: Jennifer Cross helps run the Bread of Life Community Food Pantry in Saltville, Virginia, which is busier than ever.

Ms. CROSS: Well, just to give you an example, in 1997 we had five families; today we have over 800. The biggest thing we've been seeing more of is younger families, single mothers with small children and elderly people who are on fixed incomes.

Unidentified Man #1: To date, eight potatoes and five macaroni salads.

BERKES: Volunteers crowd the sidewalk outside Bread of Life's red-brick storefront sorting food for delivery. Wreatha Hankins and her son and two daughters are among them. They help distribute food as well as receive it. Cucumbers and green peppers are stuffed into plastic bags. Banana boxes jammed with canned salmon, dried figs, cottage cheese and meat are loaded into trucks and vans.

Ms. HELEN TAYLOR (Volunteer): You all got my 18 boxes in there that easy?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Ms. TAYLOR: Ooh.

Unidentified Man #2: They're in there, but I don't know where the (unintelligible).

Ms. TAYLOR: Thank you. We'll get them out.

BERKES: Helen Taylor marvels at the stacks of boxes filling her church van before she heads out on her rural food delivery route, 18 families spread out over 50 miles.

Ms. TAYLOR: I have several people out of my 18 that literally depend on this.

BERKES: Do you get the feeling that some of these folks may not be eating otherwise regularly?

Ms. TAYLOR: Yes. Unless a neighbor brings a dish in or a family member helps, yes.

BERKES: High gas prices have made these deliveries expensive. That's one of several challenges in getting food to rural places. Grocery stores and food pantries are fewer and farther between. Some people don't have cars or cars that run reliably, especially the elderly and disabled. And hunger is sometimes hidden in remote homes and towns. Sometimes Wreatha Hankins hides her sporadic hunger from her husband.

Ms. HANKINS: I'd lie to him. If I wasn't eating at dinner, I'd tell him, `I had a big lunch,' or, `I ate,' or, `I don't feel good.' So I would make sure he would get what he needed and the kids would get what they would need, and I'd just go without. That's what a mom does. She makes sure her family is taken care of first, and the kids come first and Robbie comes second. You know, he's out there working. He's got to keep his strength up.

(Soundbite of whisking)

BERKES: It's omelette night at the Hankins house, so Wreatha scrambles eggs in a bowl. She cuts cubes of bologna from a massive roll as thick as a softball; it came from the food pantry. She also adds diced green peppers and onions from a neighbor's garden. Robbie's home from work, rail-thin, tired, boyish-looking and dusted with powder from work.

Mr. ROBBIE HANKINS (Chilhowie Resident): It bothers me knowing that I don't know whether we're going to have food from one week to the next. There's been times when we've been behind on our mortgage payment, actually in jeopardy of losing our home. But the food--it has to come first. And, again, we don't spend a whole lot; we don't have a whole lot to spend. But what we do, we try to stretch out and just get the most for what we can.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

BERKES: Now where are we here?

Ms. HANKINS: This is Dollar General, and I spend a lot of time here. I know the store like the back of my hands.

BERKES: Wreatha stretches the family food dollars by shopping at dollar stores, illustrating a growing trend that alarms nutritionists. They worry that the processed foods found in discount stores replace fresh vegetables and fruits from supermarkets.

Ms. HANKINS: These are the noodles that come in handy when the kids are out of school, so I can get six for a dollar here. That helps. Easy trick I learned is I can add the real thin spaghetti to this and make it go even further (laughs).

BERKES: Do you think you're getting the nutrition you should be getting out of the food you're buying from here as opposed to a grocery store?

Ms. HANKINS: Yeah. I'm buying the same things. I'm just saving money. And with the money that I can save here, that means I can get the shampoo and I can get the toothpaste and the deodorant and the toilet paper. And things that sometimes are taken for granted, sometimes I gotta save for or roll pennies for.

BERKES: The hunt for cheap food is constant: flea markets on weekends for damaged and just-expired packaged foods; roadside stands for bargain bags of fruit and vegetables; the nearly expired meat section at the supermarket; garden produce from the neighbors. Most of the time it's enough; sometimes it isn't, and Wreatha gets desperate, turning to family heirlooms.

Ms. HANKINS: My great-great-great-grandmother's Blue Willow, which evidently is the good stuff--we were struggling, and I sold it. There was things that we needed, you know. You need butter and you need bread and things of that nature. And I sold it for $50 and went back two weeks later, and the guy had a thousand-dollar price tag on it.

BERKES: There are bigger trade-offs, like medicine and health care. The Hankins children get health insurance under a Virginia program for uninsured kids. But Wreatha and Robbie can't afford insurance, and Wreatha suffers from epilepsy and chronic back pain.

Ms. HANKINS: I don't take any medications anymore. That is something that's unaffordable. I've done well. I try to keep stress levels down and keep calm and try to walk a little bit. But as far as any of the medications that I'm supposed to be on, I don't take. I just deal with it.

BERKES: Wreatha has even resorted to homespun dentistry, filling her own broken tooth and cavities with candle wax instead of spending the money on treatment.

The Hankins are not alone. According to a national survey four years ago, of 32,000 people using food banks, soup kitchens or shelters, close to a third had to choose between eating and paying for medicine or health care; more than a third put off rent or mortgage payments. Close to 40 percent of the households surveyed had at least one adult working. All this is relatively new to the Hankins, who had plenty of food and money a decade ago in Maryland.

Mr. HANKINS: We basically lost what I would feel was a pretty good income up North in a heavily populated area. And there was many a jobs that I could have gone to. But the minimum-wage jobs were, you know, the same whether it was there or if it was here. And it was just a whole lot easier to survive off a minimum-wage job here. Our family was down here--or my family was down here and really living a decent lifestyle.

BERKES: A dispute with an employer cost Robbie his job as a plant supervisor in Maryland. He went through several jobs and layoffs in Smyth County before settling in at the concrete plant. The pay there is more than 50 percent above the minimum wage but still tough for a family of five. The family's plight seems to weigh heaviest on Wreatha Hankins.

Ms. HANKINS: I had a sidewalk preaching from my preacher one time, and it was at Christmastime. And we were having it hard, and I told him--I said, `You know, I never thought I'd say it.' I said, `But, oh, Lord, I'd sell my soul just for once'--but I haven't sold my soul, and I'm not going to sell my soul because there's a lesson here somewhere. There's a lesson.

BERKES: One of the possible lessons is back at the tree-lined Smyth County creek, the symbol of a plentiful past.

(Soundbite of creek)

BERKES: This is called Hungry Mother Creek, and it's the setting of a legend about a pioneer woman and her child. They were captured by Indians, the story goes. Tourists hear the tale from Candace Edward, a state park naturalist, who tells it barefoot and wearing a pioneer bonnet and dress.

Ms. CANDACE EDWARD (State Park Naturalist): Molly stayed with her child, and she made it back up the creek as far as she could.

BERKES: This creek right here?

Ms. EDWARD: This creek right here.

BERKES: The mother feeds berries to her child. When a search party discovers her body, the child utters two words: `Hungry mother.' Candace Edward finds this lesson in the legend.

Ms. EDWARD: Sacrifice really jumps out at me, just so that your child can go on longer than you. And it still means a lot today if you think about everywhere in the world that don't get a lot to eat, like we do, and the sacrifices that they have to make every day that we take for granted.

BERKES: No one knows whether the story is true, but it and its themes of sacrifice and need persist in Smyth County, Virginia. They're remnants of history that survive, even if the bounty of the past does not. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

SIEGEL: The nation's rural counties and biggest cities have the highest rates of food insecurity, but one-third of the nation's poor lives in the suburbs. We explore that tomorrow with a visit to Holly, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

Unidentified Man #3: The way my parents raised me, that was just something that, you know, if you don't need it, don't take it. And I didn't feel that we needed it until it came to the point where my little girl and my son want milk and it's not there.

SIEGEL: You can see the people and places in our series along, with hunger statistics and studies, at our Web site, npr.org.

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