A gripping National Geographic article titled “The New Face of Hunger” explores how and why America’s hungriest people today are different from those of decades past.

The current “face,” or image, of hunger in the country is not one marked by meager faces and famished bodies; it’s not one that we recognize from Depression-era photographs. Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at the City University of New York, explains to Nat Geo the key reason behind this: “Today more working people and their families are hungry because wages have declined.”

It’s that simple—these families are unable to subsist on such minimal wages. In response, the government “supplements” their wages with food assistance programs like SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Having increased perilously by 57% since the late 1990s, the number of the hungriest (or “food insecure,” as the government calls them) people today has hit an all-time high. There are 50,000 emergency food programs in the country today, compared to the couple hundred just 30 years ago. To qualify for SNAP, the hungriest households can’t have gross incomes that sit higher than 130 percent of the poverty rate—that means no more than $31,005/year for a family of four. In most (if not all) of these families, at least one member has a job.

As urban housing prices have risen over the years, families with such low income rates have been pushed to live in the suburbs, explains Nat GeoThis is why hunger is growing much more rapidly in the suburbs than in cities today.
The suburb in northwest Houston is a region with one of the highest percentages of SNAP assistance usage. Here (and in many other parts of the country) thousands of residents live in what is known as a “food desert”—they’re more than half a mile away from a supermarket, and are unable to always get there by car or by public transportation.

Here are the areas, in dark orange, where households live in the greatest poverty in Houston.
Building the bulk of their diet from food pantries and SNAP food banks means that these families don’t eat in the most nutritious way. “Healthful food can be hard to find in so-called food deserts—communities with few or no full-service groceries,” writes author Tracie McMillan.

One of the most pressing issues is the choice of crops taxpayers support with subsidies. The U.S. government decides to spend most of the funds on supporting very particular crops, like corn and soy. In 2012, for example, it spent approximately $11 billion in subsidizing these commodity crops. In contrast, fruits and vegetables got less than $2 billion in subsidies.

The subsidized corn is used for everything from biofuel to corn syrup, and although subsidized crops have become less expensive, they have spawned an overabundance of processed foods. These foods are cheaper, yes, but are also less nutritious and can in no way contribute to a well-balanced diet.

The diet that forms as a result of the dependency on being fed by food banks is a big reason behind the growing obesity epidemic in poorer communities.

Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty and Prosperity Program of the Center for American Progress, explains to Nat Geo,

[pullquote]”This paradox [is] that hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin. People making trade-offs between food that’s filling but not nutritious and may actually contribute to obesity.”[/pullquote]

Take a look at the limited options for America’s poorest to fill their stomachs: 
Global food expert Raj Patel is doubly on point with his justification:

“We’ve created a system that’s geared toward keeping overall food prices low but does little to support healthy, high-quality food. The problem can’t be fixed by merely telling people to eat their fruits and vegetables, because at heart this is a problem about wages, about poverty.”

Head on over to National Geographic for more charts, chilling photos, and videos that explore the new face of hunger in America.