Going hungry in America: ‘Distressing,’ ‘humbling’ and ‘scary’

Cheryl Preston knows that others are worse off. But she's still hungry.

As grocery prices creep higher and her income sags, rationing her family's food is a daily task. The 54-year-old mother of three and grandmother of three in Roanoke, Va., says there are days she skips meals so her husband and son can eat. If they notice, she says, she'll let them think she's fasting. She waters down the milk and juice to make it last longer. She visits food pantries, but it's not enough.

"Who would think that in the land of plenty, hard-working families would go hungry? But I am living proof it is true," Preston writes in a first-person account for Yahoo!.

In the last three years, she hasn't been able to replace a $500 loss in monthly income. Her husband's job can't always guarantee 40 hours a week; his second job lasted only through Christmas. So mealtime suffers: Her family eats in one day what they used to eat at one meal. Often, they manage on a nearly barren cupboard for five or six days until the next pay day. They sometimes skip family gatherings at restaurants because they can't pay the tab.

"It is distressing," Preston writes.

"When you get a check for $250, and your basic needs require at least $400, you are already defeated. You can only cut back so much and then you have no choice but to do without. I long for the days when I could pay my bills on time, buy more than enough groceries and have money left over."

She's not alone. Eighteen percent of Americans say there have been times this year that they couldn't afford the food they needed, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. In particularly hard-hit regions of the United States, like the South, at least one in five didn't have enough money for food. In Preston's Virginia, 15.2 percent of state residents are affected. (See a full list.)

To put a face on hunger in America, Yahoo! asked readers and contributors to share their personal stories: Are they going hungry? How are they coping with higher food prices? Did they ever think they'd be in this position? Here are more personal stories shared with Yahoo! News this week.

Six years ago, Robert Watkins and his wife earned more than $100,000 combined. Groceries comprised 5 percent of their budget. They kept an emergency fund--good for three months' expenses--in a money market. Now, Watkins writes, they keep a "rainy day" jar of about $250 in assorted change by the bedside.

"If I had to travel to the market and buy groceries for dinner tonight, would I have the money to do so? The truth is, yes, I would," Watkins writes. "Yet it's strange to think that this is life in America today. Like tens of millions of other people in the United States, we look closely at an expenditure that we took for granted just a few years ago--the cost of food."

Seventeen months ago, Watkins was downsized from his job and while he works contractually and part-time, his income "pales in comparison" to two years ago. Couple their one-income family with inflated food prices, and their grocery budget is almost 10 percent of their net income.

At 46, he says "it's a humbling exercise."

To make due, they've taken advantage of living in a farming community in Lancaster, Pa. Fruits and veggies are affordable; there's plenty of corn on the cob, red potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes. They create their own dressing and get water from a well. And they eat lots of pasta.

"Is it scary sometimes? You bet it is," Watkins writes. "However, it could always be a whole lot worse."

In Arizona, Jeremy Shapiro lives on a nutrition assistance program, receiving $50 a week for food. It's significantly altered his eating habits: less food, less often.

"I have reduced my portion sizes and meal frequency," he writes. "Creativity and flexibility is key."

Shapiro, 35, says he has always tried to eat healthy. When he was employed and food prices were more reasonable, it was easy. Now it's tricky with less money.

"I only shop sales. I hunt for online and paper ads and cut coupons. I also do not stock food unless it's extremely fiscally prudent," Shapiro writes.

That means no more fresh fruit; canned and concentrate must suffice. Only frozen chicken, beef and fish are affordable. Brand-name cereals are out. Milk must be on sale, and hormone-free varieties aren't "financially feasible." Generics and store brands have replaced Tillamook cheese, Boar's Head meats and Laura Scudder's peanut butter.

"One day, I will have gainful employment and afford more and better again," Shapiro writes. "However for today, I keep my head up and spirits high -- and body healthy -- as best I can."

Here's a taste of Tom Servo's bare-bones grocery list: A few bags of dried beans. Breakfast cereal of some kind -- usually whatever's on sale. A large canister of dried oats. Lots of bananas -- typically a few pounds. A bag of apples. Other miscellaneous fresh fruits and veggies -- whatever's in season and on sale.

The 29-year-old college student in Tampa, Fla., says his grocery list is written for nutrition, not taste. He sticks to bare essentials and buys in bulk. But two weeks of groceries used to cost him $50; now it's almost $100.

For example: "I used to pay 99 cents for one pound of dried black beans; now they cost $1.49 or more. Two years ago I paid $2.39 for a 16-ounce jar of generic peanut butter; now the same peanut butter costs $3.99."

"For the first time in my life, I've recently had to make a choice between groceries or some other expense," he writes.

Michelle Zanatta once spoiled her husband with her elaborate Italian meals of fresh vegetables and heaps of garlic bread. They were expensive, too: Her four-cheese lasagna cost $18 to make. The Italian ham and cheese rolls set them back $20.

But after her once-successful business started failing and their home went into foreclosure, she faced the reality of food prices. She and her husband are also dealing with higher food costs in Atlanta after a move from Delaware. ("The cost of a fresh-baked loaf of Italian bread was 98 cents from the local Wal-Mart, while here in Georgia, it's a $1.49 -- plus food tax!")

"I at no time thought about how much money I spent grocery shopping, until we had to set a very tight budget," she writes. "I was also never a huge fan of couponing because I thought it was time-consuming; however, at 34, my perspective on coupons has changed greatly."

Her family visits local food banks and shaves costs off milk, eggs, cereal and cheese through a WIC program.

"Though times seem tough, and my lavish meals have dwindled down to two times a month, my children learned to appreciate those special meals," Zanatta writes, "and I have learned to use my resources and shop smartly."

When she worked as a Wal-Mart cashier,
Michelle Croy remembers watching seniors decide between buying food and buying medicine.

"Their medicine often ranked first so that meant that Vienna sausages and crackers sufficed for the month for sustenance," she writes. "I never really entertained the thought that someday that would be me."

The single mother in Huntington, W.V., says she is shocked she must scramble to pay bills and feed her children. Milk runs upward of $4 a gallon, and a pack of hamburger costs $9. "This is why my family settles with a banana or cereal for breakfast, skips lunches entirely, eats a dinner that is produced almost entirely from our garden, and hardly ever eats out."

Croy, now a student teacher in Huntington ("where jobs are as scarce as rain in the Sahara"), writes that while groceries trump other needs and wants, they could be in worse shape.

"My case is nowhere near as disheartening as those of the children who go to bed hungry every night, or the families who survive solely on donations from food banks," she writes, "but it's indicative of the reality that most of us middle-class Americans face: We are all just one paycheck away from going hungry or living homeless out on the streets."

More first-person stories:

Starving College Student -- It's a Reality

Divorced Family Struggles Against Rising Food Costs

My Battle With Rising Food Prices

My Family Can't Afford Meats and Dairy at Our Local Supermarket