Hungry in America: Family Sometimes Must Choose Between Paying Bills, Buying Food

VIDEO: Government reports one in seven Americans now live below the poverty line.
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What is it like to go to bed hungry? What is it like to tell your family that there is not enough food to go around? How do you feed a family for a month, when your paycheck is barely enough to cover the mortgage?

These are questions many families are wrestling with across the nation. Fifty million Americans are "food insecure" and don't know where they will find their next meal, according to figures released by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2009. That means 17.2 million children are at risk of going hungry.

Michael Marcincin, 51, of Temple, Pa., his wife Dannie and their three girls are getting by.

Michael and Dannie Marcincin used to work at a local tannery.

"My last day was Dec. 31, 2004," he said. "Then the tannery moved to Mexico."

He hasn't had a full-time job since. He works part time in security at a local department store, and his wife works part time at a day care center. The family gets some government assistance in the form of food stamps.

"Many times after working only 31 hours a week, you get paid, you pay the bills, you have $6 left in your wallet," Marcincin told ABC News. "You don't have enough for food."

Marcincin and his wife often skip meals or reduce their own meal portions so their children can eat.

"They see we are not eating and they ask us why aren't you eating and we'll say well we are not hungry," he said. "The kids know. The whole family knows our situation."

New research has shown that children are much more aware of food insecurity and its effects on the family unit, according to John Cook, an associate professor of Pediatrics at Boston University's School of Medicine.

"They recognize very clearly that their parents are reducing their food intake to save them from experiencing hunger," Cook said. "It's distressing to them."

Children may come up with their own coping mechanisms.

"They express concern for their parents," Cook said. "They will even reduce their own food intake. They will undertake their own processes to contribute to the family's resources."

Food insecurity is a health risk, Dr. Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston Medical Center, a colleague of Cook's, told ABC News.

"Not having enough food places children and parents at risk of malnourishment," Sandel said. "When you are underweight, you have a hard time fighting illness."

Having the proper nutrition through age 3 is crucial for brain development and social development, Sandel said.

"Between the ages of 0 and 3, children are developing the brain they are going to have for the rest of their lives," Sandel said. "Children who are not eating enough will conserve energy. They are less exploratory. They are not doing the kind of brain development that is necessary. They will sit. Parents who are not eating enough are not as able to interact with their child. They are less active. A lot of the important bonding and modeling will not take place."

Sandel added that there is a tendency for under fed children to become obese later in life.

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