By Tracie McMillan, National Geographic Magazine
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash
On a gold-gray morning in Mitchell County, Iowa, Christina Dreier sends her son, Keagan, to school without breakfast. He is three years old, barrel-chested, and stubborn, and usually refuses to eat the free meal he qualifies for at preschool. Faced with a dwindling pantry, Dreier has decided to try some tough love: If she sends Keagan to school hungry, maybe he’ll eat the free breakfast, which will leave more food at home for lunch.
Dreier knows her gambit might backfire, and it does. Keagan ignores the school breakfast on offer and is so hungry by lunchtime that Dreier picks through the dregs of her freezer in hopes of filling him and his little sister up. She shakes the last seven chicken nuggets onto a battered baking sheet, adds the remnants of a bag of Tater Tots and a couple of hot dogs from the fridge, and slides it all into the oven. She’s gone through most of the food she got last week from a local food pantry; her own lunch will be the bits of potato left on the kids’ plates. “I eat lunch if there’s enough,” she says. “But the kids are the most important. They have to eat first.”
The fear of being unable to feed her children hangs over Dreier’s days. She and her husband, Jim, pit one bill against the next—the phone against the rent against the heat against the gas—trying always to set aside money to make up for what they can’t get from the food pantry or with their food stamps, issued by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Congressional cuts to SNAP last fall of five billion dollars pared her benefits from $205 to $172 a month.
On this particular afternoon Dreier is worried about the family van, which is on the brink of repossession. She and Jim need to open a new bank account so they can make automatic payments instead of scrambling to pay in cash. But that will happen only if Jim finishes work early. It’s peak harvest time, and he often works until eight at night, applying pesticides on commercial farms for $14 an hour. Running the errand would mean forgoing overtime pay that could go for groceries.
It’s the same every month, Dreier says. Bills go unpaid because, when push comes to shove, food wins out. “We have to eat, you know,” she says, only the slightest hint of resignation in her voice. “We can’t starve.”