Ours has always been a nation of contrasting wealth and want, but perhaps never more so than today. Amid the prosperity of 1997, more than 21 million people stood on food lines in America, according to Chicago-based Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief charity, which supports food banks nationwide. Since Congress enacted welfare reform in 1996, 4.6 million people have stopped receiving food stamps. Partly as a result, in 1997 requests for emergency food assistance increased by 16 percent, a 29-city survey found.

"Society is being cheated," says Second Harvest president Sister Christine Vladimiroff. Poor nutrition retards development. "These children will never reach their potential." Though many of the hungry are addicted or mentally ill, 60 percent are working poor and "older Americans who've played by the rules but ended up without enough to eat," she says. "These aren't lazy people. They're struggling people."

Correspondents Joanne Fowler and Barbara Sandler in March captured the wrenching stories of a handful of people whose paths led to the Good News Community Kitchen in Chicago.

Fending for herself, feeding others

Around 8 p.m., Margie Kleinholz, 78, settles into a chair in her neighbor Mary Brown's roach-infested apartment and starts to unpack the large plastic sack she has hauled across town. Brown's face brightens as, one by one, Margie pulls out a loaf of bread, a plastic bag filled with lasagna, and a cup brimming with sausages. "Margie gives me everything," says Brown. "I'd do without if she didn't bring me something."

The nightly ritual is more than a simple act of neighborly kindness. For Kleinholz, who eats her own dinner at the Good News soup kitchen, it's a mission. She carries away free food to sustain the lives of those she loves: Brown, 74, a destitute widow; Brown's emotionally disturbed 30-year-old daughter Cathy; and Micheal and Ebony Richardson, ages 6 and 8, the two impoverished children the state of Illinois pays Margie a small sum to babysit—helping her meet the expenses her $720 monthly Social Security check can't cover.

Every day, Kleinholz rises before dawn and leaves her apartment at 5 a.m. for an hour-long trip uptown on three buses to the building where Micheal and Ebony live in a basement apartment. Nearly 12 hours later, she takes them by bus to the soup kitchen to make sure they get one good meal a day. "Don't forget to get seconds even if you're not hungry," she reminds them.

By 6:30 p.m., Margie, still disabled from a nasty mugging 15 years ago that left her with a shuffling gait and a badly damaged wrist, escorts the children back to their apartment before spending another hour riding buses home with food for her elderly neighbor.

This is not the retirement Kleinholz had envisioned. Born in 1919 in rural Stetsonville, Wis., she came to Chicago at 21 and met and married Clarence "Pappy" Thill, a bus driver. Unable to have children, Margie spent the next 34 years concentrating on her job soldering parts for a lighting manufacturer. She enjoyed a comfortable life, with vacations in Europe, Israel and throughout the U.S. with her husband.

Shortly before his death in 1978, Thill, then a retired Pennsylvania Railroad train router, asked poker pal Jacob Kleinholz, a retired butcher, to marry Margie after Thill was gone. Margie eventually agreed, and in 1985 her new husband suffered a stroke and died uninsured, leaving her $47,000 in medical bills—and wiping out her life's savings. "You know the expression, 'You can't take it with you?' Well, he sure did," Margie says.

Margie was forced back to work to supplement her income. The state welfare department now pays her $306 a month to watch Micheal and Ebony, Rosetta Moore's children. But Moore, a part-time school cashier, recently had her welfare payments cut and can no longer always afford the $74 a month she is supposed to contribute to Margie's salary. Kleinholz, who sometimes uses part of her money to buy the kids toys or treat them to lunch at McDonald's, tells Moore to pay what she can. "What are friends for if we can't help one another?" Kleinholz asks.

Whatever happens, Margie Kleinholz never complains—except when panhandlers accost her on the street, begging for a dollar for food. "I tell them, 'Gentlemen, that shelter serves at 5:30 p.m,' " she says. " 'There's enough free food out there. All you have to do is do like me.' "

A motorman's reckless journey to homelessness

Claude Pickett used to earn $18 an hour as a motorman with the Chicago Transit Authority—more than enough to provide for his wife, Doretha, and six children. "I loved that job," says Pickett, 47, who was raised in public housing but worked his way up to a large apartment on Chicago's North Side. "It was like going to a party every day."

Too much so, as it turned out. After Pickett, who divorced in 1985, had an argument over a ticket with a passenger in 1991, he tested positive for cocaine and was fired. Though he received some income from a pension and Social Security, his savings ran out last April, and he couldn't pay his $435 monthly rent. Homeless, on cold nights he would sleep on the very trains he had once operated. "I used to cover my head all the way up to hide from my coworkers," he says. Once he was so hungry that he boiled scavenged KFC chicken bones to make broth.

Yet, Pickett, who is still in contact with his children, was loath to accept help and only reluctantly made his way in May of 1997 to the soup kitchen, where he remains a regular. After suffering seizures last year, he finally quit cocaine in September—when a doctor warned that mixing the drug with his medication could kill him. Pickett admits that had he quit earlier, he might have put the $400 a month he was spending on drugs to better use. "I would do it differently now," he says. "You have to put something aside. You never know what's going to happen."

Born in a different world

John Kuhnen considered growing a beard eight years ago when he made his first visit to a food shelter. He was fearful someone would recognize him, worried that he would be ridiculed for the affluent upbringing still legible in his clean, rounded features. "I thought I should look more rugged, a little more the part," recalls Kuhnen, 43. "I felt like if I could look more the part, people wouldn't look down on me. I looked like maybe I should have been doing better than I was doing."

In fact his was once a life of promise. The son of a successful civil engineer who builds freezers, Kuhnen and his two brothers and three sisters grew up in a six-bedroom house with a spacious yard in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe. A popular high school swimmer accepted at Iowa Wesleyan College, Kuhnen showed no clear signs of brain chemistry gone awry, even after he'd quit college and returned home to a succession of low-paying jobs. But at 27, his increasingly erratic behavior—"I was spending money like I was turning on a faucet"—prompted his father to insist that he see a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder—manic depression—and has been hospitalized off and on since 1981.

Kuhnen survives without bitterness on his $655-a-month government disability check, plus money he picks up fixing cars and mowing lawns, and meals at the shelter. His family, exasperated by Kuhnen's unwillingness to stay on his medication, stays in touch but no longer attempts to support him. Kuhnen has adapted to poverty and says he can get by on one meal a day. "Everyone should have a taste of being poor," he says. "Maybe then they'd know how to treasure every gift that God has given them."

A shared disorder traps mother and child in destitution

Stacey Mackey lines the curve of her mouth meticulously with a brown lip pencil and stares critically into the mirror. A slender, striking 5'8", she dreams of working as a model. But that's not likely to happen soon. For weeks on end, Mackey, 21, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can't bring herself to leave her apartment—even for food—because she doesn't think she looks good enough. "I feel like such a loser," says Mackey, who has three times attempted suicide. "I just feel everything is so pointless."

Stacey was diagnosed with OCD after suffering a breakdown in 1997, three years after graduating from a boarding school outside Philadelphia, which she attended on scholarship. She chain-smokes to stave off hunger pangs and waits for her mother, Penny Ottens, to bring food in Tupperware containers from Good News. Ottens, who lives two floors below, also suffers from OCD, which manifests itself in her case through hoarding junk.

Hunger has been their longtime companion. Ottens began needing soup kitchens after her 11-year marriage to a gas-station manager ended in divorce in 1984. Despite receiving child-support payments, she was sometimes so desperate to feed her young children that, in summer, she marched them through picnic areas along Lake Michigan in hopes of being invited to a table. "We used to pray to God that we could find someone to feed us," says Ottens, 48, whose disorder makes it impossible for her to hold down a job. A self-described pack rat, she lives amid a nightmare of clutter with daughter Karen, 18, and son Mark, 24, whose learning disability keeps him from working.

Ottens began taking her children to Good News 15 years ago. But for the past eight, Stacey has refused to go. Even if she could overcome the fears that keep her at home, she would avoid the shelter to keep from being harassed by the gangs she would pass on the street. Thus it is left to Ottens to provide. "I'd rather not have to go to soup kitchens. I'd rather have my own food that I can pick and choose," she explains. "Some people think everybody has to work. They don't understand that some people can't."

Ill and seeking shelter fop her sons

Blaine Hicks's big day each month comes when his mother's $414 welfare check arrives and she treats the 10-year-old and his brothers to dinner at McDonald's or Burger King and then slips each boy his allowance: $5 to both Blaine and his twin, Bryant, and $10 for Corinth, 13. Blaine sometimes doesn't want to take the money. "I want to give it right back to her," he says, "to help her out."

She could use the help. On her own since her boyfriend left when the twins were a year old, Linda Hicks, 37, struggles daily—often unsuccessfully—to feed her boys and find shelter. A former cashier and bus driver, she has been unable to hold on to a full-time job for a decade, and the family has lost one apartment after another. A series of health problems, including cervical cancer and diabetes, made her life so bleak that Hicks—who was also plagued by alcoholism—attempted suicide in 1990. "My mom had a life-insurance policy on me," she says. "I figured my kids would be better off if I were dead."

Her family's living arrangements usually depend on whatever Hicks is able to find: a sofa in a friend's apartment one night, a cheap hotel room the next. The only constant has been the Good News Community Kitchen, which has become a sort of after-school club for Blaine, though he tries to conceal it from his schoolmates. "They say, 'Blaine goes to the soup kitchen,' " he says, his eyes downcast in embarrassment.

So far, Hicks's boys have kept from getting involved with the gangs that are a frightening and unavoidable presence on the streets of the Rogers Park neighborhood that is the closest thing the family has to a home. "There are too many other things to worry about," says Blaine, who has more than once had friends killed in gang battles. "Too many things that we need."

Blaine dreams about living in a house, getting an education and maybe becoming a police officer. His mother's hopes are more immediate: a job driving buses again or maybe in a takeout restaurant her brother Terry Bosley hopes to open soon, good health and a steady home. She and Terry recently rented a $440-per-month, one-bedroom apartment with three beds: one for each adult and the twins, while Corinth gets the floor. "I always found a place for the kids to lay their heads at night," she says of her seemingly perennial effort to find shelter. "It was just hard to find a place for grown-ups."

A working couple struggle to keep the family afloat

After growing up on public assistance in inner-city Chicago projects, Andre and Melissa Holt were determined to make a better life for themselves. "I saw how my mother and father struggled to feed us," says Andre, 25, "and I didn't want my family to have to be like that."

But security has eluded the couple. With six children under age 10 between them—two are Melissa's from a previous relationship—they have frequently moved from apartments after rent increases or trying to cram too many bodies into too little space. "I can't work to the best of my ability because I'm constantly thinking, 'What can I do to find an apartment?' " says Melissa, 25, who earns about $100 a week after taxes as a part-time drugstore cashier, while Andre nets $242 from a grocery-store job. (They also receive $301 in welfare and $665 in food stamps and coupons a month.)

Still, things were worse four years ago, when both were jobless and their only solid meals came from the soup kitchen. Though she sometimes fears she'll never have enough to make ends meet, knowing that others have plenty to eat doesn't make Melissa jealous, just regretful. "We're all given opportunities—other people took advantage of them and I didn't," she says, noting that she dropped out of high school before earning a GED. "I wish I had. But I know it's not too late."