Tianna Gaines Turner can't remember the last time she went to bed without worrying about how she was going to feed her three children.
She can't remember the last time she woke up and wasn't worried about how she and her husband would make enough in their part-time jobs to buy groceries and pay utilities on their apartment in a working-class section of Philadelphia.
And she can't remember the last time she felt confident she and her husband wouldn't have to skip meals so their children could eat.
Twenty-eight hundred miles away in a middle-class section of Van Nuys, Calif., similar worries press on Nikki Maxwell and her husband. The two lost their jobs during the recession and now work part time making half their former income.
They face a daily struggle to feed their three children, Maxwell says. She remembers the first time she had to turn to a food pantry for help because she had no other options.
"I remember feeling really hopeless," Maxwell says. "I was depressed. I didn't know what to do. I was drowning under the weight of it."
The recession is officially over, but not for millions of working poor, such as Gaines Turner and Maxwell, who do not always have enough money to buy food for the family, according to a new report by Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity.
The report, based on 2012 federal survey data on 44,000 households, says 49 million Americans are "food insecure" — people who sometimes eat less, go hungry or eat less nutritious meals because they can't afford to eat better. Almost a third of them are children.
The report, called "Map the Meal Gap," found:
• In 324 counties, mostly in the South, one in five residents are food insecure. Nationally, the figure is one in seven people. Those rates haven't changed since Feeding America began issuing the annual report in 2011, when 318 counties had high food insecurity rates.
• Families say they needed on average an additional $15.82 per person per week in 2012 to buy enough groceries, up from $14.35 in 2011.
• More counties with a high number of people who are food insecure are seeing food costs go up. The report says 23 counties with high rates of people at risk of hunger also had high food costs. In those counties, the average meal costs $3 or more, higher than the national average of $2.74. In 2011, just eight counties had high food insecurity rates and high meal costs.
"Despite the end of the Great Recession, food insecurity rates are high," says Craig Gundersen, an economist and executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, who studies hunger and compiled the research in the Feeding America report.
Poverty, which contributes to hunger, has remained stubbornly high, he says. The poverty rate — defined by the federal government as annual income of $23,550 for a family of four — is 15%.
"This shows tens of millions of Americans are still struggling," he says.
Nikki and Bill Maxwell with their children: Logan, 8, left, Morgan, 12, center, and Erin, 14 outside their Chatsworth, Calif., home.(Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)
Those most at risk of empty refrigerators and growling tummies are the 10 million people who make up the working poor, says Mariana Chilton, a public health professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and the director of the school's Center for Hunger-Free Communities.
She says reductions in government programs such as food stamps coupled with rising costs of food, housing and utilities force poor families to choose between buying food and paying bills.
"This is a massive public health crisis, and it is a silent crisis," she says.
In November, Congress reduced food stamp benefits to 47 million people. On average, a family of four receiving $668 a month saw that allotment drop by $36.
Preliminary data show that the cuts are affecting families, Chilton says. Children's HealthWatch, a network of doctors and public health researchers who collect data on children up to 4 years old, says 29% of the households they track were at risk of hunger last year, compared with 25% the year before.
The number of families receiving food stamps dropped from almost 48 million people in January of last year to 46.5 million in January this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.
That's a sign that the economy is recovering, says Robert Doar, a poverty studies fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market research group. He was commissioner of New York City's Human Resources Administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
However, he says, the recovery is still weak and leaving many families behind.
He cautions that food insecurity is not a measure of hunger; it is a measure of a person's financial circumstances and their perception of how much food they can afford to buy.
"It makes it more likely that (the term) can be used to make the problem appear worse," he says, but as a financial measure it shows "the extent to which the recovery is painfully slow."
Gaines Turner and her family live in Philadelphia, one of the counties with high rates of food insecurity at 22%. She says she can't buy enough healthful food on her family's income and food stamps. Her kids are among the almost 21 million children in families who get food stamps.
She makes $10.88 an hour as a seasonal administrator at a Philadelphia recreation center. She was unemployed during the winter. Her husband, Marcus, works at a supermarket deli part time, making $8.50 an hour. They qualify for federal housing assistance that drops their rent to $30 a month. In the past two years, their food stamp allotment has gone up and down from a high of almost $800 to a low of $163, depending on their income.
"You rob PECO to go to Pathmark," she says, referring to the power company and supermarket. "We're working low-wage jobs, so you are living paycheck to paycheck and you don't know where the money is going to come from."
She says they struggle to pay utility costs that top $400 a month. They've bounced from cheap motels to apartments as they struggle to find safe, affordable places to live that are not crime-ridden or so rodent- or mold-infested that they worsen her children's asthma.
Her children, a 9-year-old boy and 6-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, have epilepsy and are on daily medication. She has epilepsy, asthma and high blood pressure, which means they are all on a costly gluten-free diet. On their income, she says, buying fresh fruits, vegetables, milk and meat is difficult.
Almost every day, she gets on a bus and treks to buy whatever is on sale. She says she'll go to five markets to get what the average person buys in one.
By the end of the month, things get scarce, she says.
She calls friends for help, visits her local food pantry and, when all else fails, she and her husband don't eat so they can leave the food they have for their children.
"The saddest thing is when my oldest son would say, 'Mommy, you can eat my food,' " she says. "I don't want my kids hurt by this."
Gaines Turner, 35, has chronicled her family's odyssey, which includes two periods of homelessness, in more than 2,000 photographs for an advocacy and research project run by Drexel University called Witnesses to Hunger.
Maxwell, 44, her husband and three children have had a similar experience. They weren't always poor. Maxwell's family was solidly middle-class. She and her husband graduated from college and had good jobs. She wrote grant applications for non-profit organizations and he wrote text for video games. But they lost their jobs and then their home in the recession. They were homeless for six months in 2012, bouncing around from relative to friend.
The worst thing, she says, was not knowing when they would have the money to feed their children. They ran through their savings and 401(k)s. Her husband skipped meals.
More than a year ago, they found part-time jobs with a social service agency that helps Native Americans, but they make less than they used to and too much to qualify for food stamps or other government benefits. So they still struggle to feed their children, who are 8, 12 and 14.
Monthly visits to the food pantry help supplement their meals with noodles, peanut butter, beans, fruits and vegetables. Maxwell says she doesn't know what she'd do without the food bank's help.
"Recovery is a slow process," Maxwell says. "There are a lot of people in crisis. When you face food insecurity, it's hard to feel secure again."
For more on hunger in America, go to hunger.usatoday.com