Hungry for so much: a working class story in Chattanooga.

Each month, this mother must choose: food or bills?

Hungry for so much: a working class story in Chattanooga.
Gwen, Tyner, Tennessee

Each month, this mother must choose: food or bills?

If Food as a Verb is going to tell the stories of local food, we also must tell the stories of those who are without food.

"All the money I make is just enough to cover the bills half the time. What are we supposed to do about eating?"

Gwen works two jobs: an eight-hour shift offering sit-in home health care that also includes 12-hour shifts every other weekend. In her spare moments – late afternoons, Sundays – she sells government-issued phones from nearby parking lots.

She's 47.

She's been working since she was 15.

"I feel like I am 90 years old," she said.

Gwen – who asked us to hide her name and image from this story – could work until she's 100 and never catch up. Never catch a break. Search all you want for that window of opportunity, that weekend of ease, that shift in life where one gets ahead. You won't find it.

She can't work any harder.

"I’m trying," she said. "I’m trying so hard."

From her two-bedroom Tyner apartment, where she's hung 30 framed photos of family, kids and grandkids, Gwen, who grew up in Brainerd, speaks over her own life as if delivering a eulogy. There is no bitterness; only grief and confusion.

How do you solve the unsolvable problem of poverty?

"All the money I make is just enough to cover the bills half the time," she said. "What are we supposed to do about eating?"

Gwen, Tyner, Tennessee

Gwen is one of thousands of working class Chattanoogans for whom food is a daydream of sorts. If Food as a Verb is going to tell the stories of local food, we also must tell the stories of those who are without food.

Gwen can't remember the last time she walked into a grocery store, grabbed a buggy and just ... casual and carefree ... shopped for groceries.

"I can’t afford car insurance and groceries," she said.

She pulls out a stack of bills. It is over an inch thick.

Earlier this year, United Way published its 2023 Financial Hardship in Hamilton County report, which uses a marker called ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – to classify local families who are working, yet barely surviving with thread-bare safety nets.

Just like Gwen.

United Way reports that in 2021, 26% of all Hamilton County families were ALICE families.

A family of four – two working adults, two children – needs hourly wages between $29 and $32 to meet basic survival needs, United Way reports.

The US Bureau of Labor reports the average hourly wage for regional workers was $24.98 in May 2022. That's 16% below the national average.

United Way's 2023 Financial Hardship in Hamilton County report

United Way operates our city's 211 resource; ideally, folks call, looking for assistance and help, and 211 operators – it's a really beautiful program – connect them with regional service providers.

Over the last year – see below – 211 calls have been highest in one area:


United Way, 211 data (

Gwen earns $15.25 an hour in home health care. Then, each time she signs someone up for a cell phone, she gets $15.

Her rent? $829.

Car payment: $200.

Light bill: $150.

Sewer bill: $100.

Water bill: $100

Cell phone and internet: $125.

All that's before any money for groceries or medicine. Or warm clothes. Or, a Saturday matinee, fresh flowers or Christmas presents.

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Each month, she juggles the sharpest of decisions: if she files an extension on her light bill, can she then pay her car note? Can an extension on the sewer let her pay for water? She's stood at 3 am outside one local agency for 8 am help. She'll take out an advance on her check, just to stay one day ahead of what's coming.

"By the time I get a check, I barely even have a check," she said. "It’s pick-and-choose who to pay each month."

CHATT. Foundation, formerly the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, offers a multitude of services and help for homeless and hungry Chattanoogans.

Usually, food is a drive-thru burger here or sandwich there. Her daughter receives WIC-support for her infant son. Gwen says officials told her she earns too much money to receive SNAP benefits. Thanksgiving was with extended family; otherwise, she wouldn't have been able to cook.

"Money is so scarce," she said.

Gwen, Tyner, Tennessee

Her son – he works two jobs, she said – sleeps on one couch, her daughter – she works at a nearby factory – on the other. Gwen has her own bedroom; her other daughter and grandson –  "we call him KD," she says with devotion — sleep in a second.

Once, she was evicted when new management claimed she hadn't paid the prior month's bill. She moved in with family. There were 13, she says, all living together. Sometimes, Gwen would find solitude by sleeping in her car.

She's been in her Tyner apartment for two years or so. She's worried that a rent increase is coming.

Small things derail everything. Her daughter had a flat tire. Tried to change it. The lug nut wrench wouldn't fit. Bought a new one. Didn't fit. Towed it to the dealer.

"They said it had an after-market lock on the tire," Gwen said.

How to help? Chattanooga Area Food Bank and its Partner Network offer direct ways to help and support working-class families.

So, they towed it back home. Still trying to find the right wrench to change the tire. Meanwhile, how does her daughter get to work? All of this costs money they don't have.

Another story: once, she was renting a place with an outside water spigot on the back of the ground-level apartment. The spigot had a constant leak. Small, but constant. Gwen never knew until she got her water bill.

"It had a leak for months," she said.

Now, after late fees, she says she owes more than $500.

"It never stops," she said. "We can’t get ahead. Every time we turn around, it is something."

I've known Gwen for a year or so. She is unforgettably resilient, generous, welcoming and kind. But most of all?

She doesn't give up.

"I pray because I know there’s a God," she said. "I pray over my kids. I pray over my grandkids. I pray over me."

She continued: "Before you called, I was worried: how am I going to get groceries? Then, you called."

Our grocery store gift card bought her some time. But there aren't enough gift cards or food boxes in the city to alter the tectonic forces that create, perpetuate and keep unsolved the problem of working class poverty in Chattanooga.

Despite it all, Gwen will wake up again tomorrow morning, pray over her children and grandchildren, then – smile on her face, always leaning forward – go back to work.

She is so hungry for so much more than food.

"I'm trying," she said. "I'm trying so hard."

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit

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