DYERSBURG, Tenn. — As a self-described "true Southern man" — and reluctant recipient of food stamps — Dustin Rigsby, a struggling mechanic, hunts deer, dove and squirrel to help feed his family. He shops for grocery bargains, cooks budget-stretching stews and limits himself to one meal a day.
Tarnisha Adams, who left her job skinning hogs at a slaughterhouse when she became ill with cancer, gets $352 a month in food stamps for herself and three college-age boys. Like Rigsby, she eats once a day — "if I eat," she said.
When Congress officially returns to Washington next week, the diets of families like the Rigsbys and Adamses will be caught up in a debate over deficit reduction. Republicans are pushing to scale down the program. No matter what Congress decides, benefits will be cut in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires.
Yet as lawmakers cast the fight in terms of spending, nonpartisan budget analysts and hunger relief advocates warn of a spike in "food insecurity" among Americans who, as Rigsby said recently, "look like we are fine" but live on the edge of poverty, skipping meals and rationing food.
On Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture released a 2012 survey showing that nearly 49 million Americans were living in "food insecure" households. In short, many Americans went hungry.
Overall, nearly 48 million Americans in the richest country in the world now receive food stamps, an $80 billion-a-year program that is increasingly the target of conservatives.
But when benefits drop in November, the Rigsbys, who say they receive about $350 a month, can expect $29 less.
"People have a lot of misimpressions about hunger in America," said Maura Daly, a Feeding America spokeswoman. "People think it's associated with homelessness when, in fact, it is working poor families, it's kids, it's the disabled." Hunger is often invisible, she said, especially in rural areas.