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Hungry during the holidays

By Rosa Flores, CNN
November 27, 2013 -- Updated 1902 GMT (0302 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Rosa Flores was moved by a woman she met covering a story
  • Katherine M. is raising her three grandchildren on food stamps and very little money
  • To earn extra cash, Katherine collects aluminum cans on the streets of Harlem
  • How can you help? Go to CNN.com/impact

Editor's note: CNN correspondent Rosa Flores reported on food stamp changes in early November, but she had a hard time forgetting the woman she profiled in the story. This woman is just one of many people who may go hungry this holiday season.

New York (CNN) -- I'm no stranger to poverty. I've lived it. I don't forget it. And when I saw Katherine M. pick up aluminum cans while walking her granddaughter home from school, I couldn't stop the rush of emotions. I wasn't reporting from a developing country. This was a New York street in the heart of Harlem.

"If I don't have my gloves, I don't dig into the garbage," Katherine said as she walked past dozens of black plastic trash bags that lined the street.

I met her at a soup kitchen while covering a story about the end of the food stamp benefit boost from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"You've gotta do your homework, and I've gotta do your hair," Katherine said with a smile to her 9-year-old granddaughter, Katherine.

Katherine M. eats at a soup kitchen in New York in order to save her food stamps to feed her grandkids.
Katherine M. eats at a soup kitchen in New York in order to save her food stamps to feed her grandkids.

In 2004, her daughter died in childbirth, making the now-66-year-old a caretaker of three overnight. That's when she went back to changing diapers and taking care of two young boys with small attention spans and big appetites.

Raising children on a fixed income was not easy for Katherine. Receiving $358 a month in food stamps helped but didn't cover all her grocery needs.

On November 1, her food stamp benefits shrunk. That's when the boost in benefits from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended. About 47 million Americans saw their benefits reduced, too. For Katherine, less food stamp benefits meant collecting more cans on the street and from friends.

"I tell everybody here, 'give me your cans,' " she said.

She redeems the cans for 5 cents each.

Talking to strangers like me about her economic situation was not easy.

"I don't like that word, 'poor,' " she said. "I'm bent."

"What does bent mean?" I asked.

"Poor, but I don't like the word poor," she said.

Katherine M. is just one of millions of people affected by changes to food stamp benefits.
Katherine M. is just one of millions of people affected by changes to food stamp benefits.

After Katherine's story aired, a generous viewer from Florida helped her shop for groceries so that this Thanksgiving, she doesn't have to sell cans to put food on the table.

Life has been rough on Katherine, but you'd never know from the constant smile on her face. She laughs about the small joys in life and about its tough lessons, as well.

"Here, you pick that up for me," Katherine instructed her young granddaughter, pointing to a bottle resting against a fence.

Young Katherine used her small hands to pick up the bottle and give it to Grandma, who put it in a small black plastic bag. We all continued walking.

As I observed and listened, I could feel a knot growing in my throat.

"I don't want her to feel ashamed because she have to pick up cans to eat or get the things that she needs," Katherine said as she looked in every direction for plastic or aluminum. "No matter how people look at you, you keep your head up."

"Do you think it's an important lesson?" I asked.

"Yeah, it shows young kids how to be independent," she responded.

By this time, I was holding back my tears. It was a lesson I learned too, at a very early age. And I was seeing another young girl receive the same advice.

According to Feeding America, 15.9 million American children lived in food-insecure homes in 2012. While many American children are thinking about the latest version of their favorite smartphone or tablet this season, millions of children across the country, like little Katherine, don't know where their next meal will come from.

To Impact Your World by fighting hunger, visit the Food Bank for New York City to make a donation that can change a life. That's where Katherine and many others may get their only food for the day. For more on how you can fight hunger in your community, go to CNN.com/impact.

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