A few thoughts in reaction to the long (and partisan) discussion of hunger, obesity and poverty at Asymmetrical Information (found via 11d).
Food is mindbogglingly cheap in the US today, accounting for a smaller portion of people's overall budgets than ever before. In fact, this is one of the big problems with the official definition of poverty. Mollie Orshansky, who developed the measure in the 1960s, found that the average family spent about 1/3 of its income on food; the poverty measure was thus set at three times the cost of an economy food plan.
So why are some families struggling to buy food? Because other necessities have gotten more expensive, especially housing. Many low-income families spend 50 percent or more of their incomes on housing; if they don't want to be evicted or have their gas shut off, they pay their rent and utility bills first and whatever is left over is available for food.
Is healthy food more expensive than unhealthy food? Yes and no. It's certainly true that you can prepare nutritious and inexpensive meals, especially if you minimize use of meat. But if you want quick and easy meals -- and if you're a busy parent at any income level, you want quick and easy meals -- healthy food is a lot more expensive than fast food or a candy bar from the store on the corner. And if you're looking at a vending machine, the soda is usually half the price of the juice. (And let's not even get into the cost of organic food.)
It's also true that food is an easy way for low-income parents to indulge their children (and themselves). If you're poor, you spend a lot of time saying No. No, you can't have that. No, we can't afford that. No, you can't go there. McDonald's is an affordable treat, something you can say Yes to.
The Thrifty Food Plan for a family of 4 (with 2 young children) is $434.40 and I honestly think that we spend less than that most months. But we also eat out occasionally, which would blow that budget quickly. I also know that it's cheaper to buy food if you have enough money to buy in bulk and to stock up on groceries when they're on sale, which we do. I'm thinking of tracking our groceries 100% for a month and seeing if we can stay under it. Anyone want to join me?