The USDA indicates that in 2010 there were above 17 million households in the US (out of about 115 million households total) that were food insecure, and had trouble getting enough food on a regular basis. Only 59% of those households, however, received Food Stamps, WIC or School lunches, the three largest US food subsidy programs that make up the bulk of US nutritional supplementation programs. Which means that nearly half of all households were either receiving no support despite food insecurity, or relying on food pantries, soup kitchens and other resources.
One of the most significant things that has happened in the last 10 years is that food has become unaffordable to many Americans. This is astonishing, because we pay less of our income to food than almost anyone in the world or in human history. Meanwhile, more and more Americans need food subsidies to get to the end of the month - one in every 7, and one in every 3 school children. Very few people seem to realize how fundamentally America has changed as food subsidies have become basic. And still, nearly half the households that need help are not getting it.
The sea change in relationship to food that is occuring is truly radical - we're aware of the change that led to more obesity than hunger in the US. Now what we're seeing is obesity *AND* food insecurity together, the one reinforcing the other, as the cheapest calories are the least healthy and the knowledge of food insecurity drives people to eat as much as possible when food is present.
Meanwhile, for a billion people worldwide, as the ties between oil and agriculture draw closer so does the spectre of starvation. What is happening with food is perhaps the clearest canary in our coal mine.
Those of us with low incomes pay a large proportion of our income for our food now, as you have noted.
In the case of my husband and myself, food is *BY FAR OUR LARGEST SINGLE EXPENSE*, and consumes about 30% to 40% of our total income. We have begun not buying nutritious food that I or we (I especially) would love to have simply because we can no longer afford it. We're having less variety, fewer fresh veggies, fewer fresh fruits than we really should (we still have them, but not as freely as we really should for health).
We do not qualify for food stamps or any other food assistance. We *just miss* qualifying for them - we went through the application process about two months ago, so we know we don't qualify.
I grow as much of our food as I possibly can, but my physical capabilities are limited by age and illness now.
What did we do wrong to be so poor (since the poor are so villianized and hated now, perhaps an explanation is called for)?
We both became chronically ill (autoimmune diseases) before reaching retirement age (although I'm now over retirement age.)
Did we do something 'wrong' to cause these autoimmune disorders (smoke, drink, unhealthy diet, etc.)? Well, since no one (including modern medicine) knows the cause of autoimmune diseases, it's hard to (in fairness) blame us for contracting them.
One of the big problems for many families is not that there is not enough money for food--but that money that could've been allotted for food is sucked up by housing. The artificially-created housing "boom" of the past decade or so (manufactured to benefit wealthier Americans) means that many lower-income families (especially younger families who weren't homeowners by the late 1990s) are seeing an increasingly high percentage of their income devoted to putting a roof over their heads.
If we fixed the housing problem (let housing prices continue to fall so they were in line with incomes), more families would have money for food because it wouldn't be so dramatically sucked up by rent or mortgage payments.
This is a key point that is mostly ignored. Add transportation and medical/insurance expenses and
the reasons for food insecurity become much clearer.
These are not flexible costs so people adjust their
budgets by buying cheaper or less food.
@Lisa: You are right. There's a whole layer of people who make their living by either taking advantage of housing price inflation, or impoverished renters. In either case, it's hard not to think of this behavior as anti-social.