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. She buys discount meat and canned vegetables, cheaper than fresh. Like Mr. Rigsby, she eats once a day -- "if I eat," she said.
When Congress officially returns to Washington next week, the diets of families such as the Rigsbys and Adamses will be caught up in a debate over deficit reduction.
Republicans, alarmed by a rise in food-stamp enrollment during the economic downturn, 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 Mr. Rigsby said recently, "look like we are fine," but live on the edge of poverty, skipping meals and rationing food.
Surrounded by corn and soybean farms -- including one owned by the local congressman, Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn. -- Dyersburg, about 75 miles north of Memphis, provides an eye-opening view into Washington's food stamp debate. Mr. Fincher, elected in 2010 on a Tea Party wave, who collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies from the government from 1999 to 2012, recently voted for a farm bill that eliminated food stamps.
"The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country," Mr. Fincher, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said after his May vote. In response to a Democrat who invoked the Bible amid Congress' food stamp debate, Mr. Fincher responded with his own biblical phrase. "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat," he said.
On Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture released a 2012 survey showing that nearly 49 million Americans were living in "food insecure" households -- meaning, in the agency's bureaucratic language, that some family members lacked "consistent access throughout the year to adequate food." In short, many Americans went hungry. The agency found the figures essentially unchanged since the economic downturn began in 2008, but substantially higher than during the previous decade.
Experts say the problem is particularly acute in rural regions like Dyersburg, a small west Tennessee city of 17,000 on the Forked Deer River banks. More than half the counties with the highest food insecurity concentration are rural, according to an analysis by Feeding America, the nation's largest network of food banks. In Dyer County, it found, 19.4 percent of residents were "food insecure" in 2011, compared with 16.4 percent nationwide.
Overall, nearly 48 million Americans in the richest nation in the world now get food stamps, an $80 billion-a-year program increasingly a target of conservatives. Robert Rector, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that the food stamp program should be overhauled so benefits are tied to work, much as welfare was revamped under former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Rector also advocates mandatory drug testing for food stamp recipients -- a stance supported by Mr. Rigsby, who dreams of becoming a game warden and said it irritates him to see people "mooch off the system."
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," Feeding America spokeswoman Maura Daly said. "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, and in rural areas, it is even more invisible.
On a recent morning in Dyersburg, hunger was easy to see. Hundreds of people, many of them food stamp recipients, lined up at the county fairgrounds for boxes of free food -- 21,000 pounds of meat, potatoes, grains and produce -- trucked in from a Memphis food bank. Some 80 volunteers set up an assembly line in a warehouse to distribute it.
More than 700 families get help each month from the Feed the Need charity, founded in 2009 by local Salvation Army chairman Mark Oakes after a string of local factories closed. "We couldn't absorb the workforce back into our community, and people were hungry," he said.
Food stamps -- officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- have long been a cornerstone of the federal safety net. Benefits, adjusted for income, are loaded monthly onto a government-issued debit card. Recipients say the money typically lasts a little more than two weeks.
For the Rigsbys, both 20, the priority is three meals a day for son Blake, who is 1. Some months they run out of milk. Dustin Rigsby, out of work with a knee injury, recently sold his truck for cash; his wife, Christina, works part time as a J.C. Penney clerk. On the refrigerator in their sparsely furnished apartment is a calendar marked with the date -- the 6th -- that their card is refreshed. "FOOD!" it declares.
"When we got married," Christina Rigsby said, "we told each other that we want to be able to sit down at the table and eat as a family. But we don't really get to do that."
In Washington, House Republicans propose cutting $40 billion more in food stamps over the next 10 years by imposing work requirements and eliminating waivers for some able-bodied adults. The cuts would push 4 million to 6 million low-income people -- including millions of "very low-income unemployed parents" who want to work but cannot find jobs -- off the rolls, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But the arguments of the Heritage Foundation's Mr. Rector are gaining traction with Capitol Hill Republicans. "I think food stamps have, in the Republican mind, become the symbol of an out-of-control, means-tested welfare state," he said.