Rising poverty rate and declining median income may shift eating patterns

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — More than 46 million Americans, roughly one in six persons in the United States, lived in poverty in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in a report issued Sept. 13. The bureau indicated 2010 was the third consecutive year in which the poverty rate for Americans rose.

The news came as no surprise to those running food banks across the country who have seen a sharp increase in the number of people seeking assistance. Also, many Americans who haven’t had to turn to food banks but have seen their incomes under pressure or even decline have sought to make their dollars stretch at the grocery store, which has led to some adjustments in consumer dietary patterns, according to a respected analyst of consumer trends.

The Census Bureau indicated that more Americans lived in poverty in 2010 than in any other year since the agency began tracking poverty rates in 1959. The percentage of the population living in poverty in 2010, at 15.1%, was the highest since 1993. The percentage of the nation’s children living in poverty was 22%, also the highest since 1993. By the Census Bureau’s latest measure, the poverty thresholds last year were an income of $11,139 for one person and $22,314 for a family of four.

Median household income in the United States in 2010 was $49,445, down 2.3% from $50,599 in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. Since 2007, the year before the most recent recession, real median household income has declined 6.4%. Median household income in 2010 was down 7.1% from 1999.

The growth in poverty has resulted in an expansion in usage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps). The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated in an average month during fiscal 2010 (October 2009-September 2010), SNAP provided benefits to 40.3 million people (13% of the nation’s population). The average benefit was about $134 per person per month, and total federal expenditures on the program in the year totaled $68.2 billion. In fiscal 2009, SNAP benefits were provided to 33.7 million persons (11% of the population) with average benefit at $124 per person per month. Total federal expenditures on the program in fiscal 2009 was $53.6 billion.

“This reported increase (in poverty) is not a surprise to Feeding America,” said Vicki Escarra, president and chief executive officer. “We know that more and more people are seeking help to feed themselves and their families. Proof of this is that the Feeding America network of food banks distributed 3.1 billion lbs of food in 2010, an increase of 500 million lbs from 2009, when 2.6 billion lbs were distributed.”

Karen Haren, president and c.e.o. of Harvesters — the Community Food Network, which assists persons in a 26-county region in northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri, said, “The need for emergency food assistance in our region is at an all-time high. More children, families and seniors are at risk of not having a meal than at any other time in Harvester’s 32-year history. During fiscal year 2011 (ended May 31), Harvesters distributed more than 38 million lbs of food, a historic high for our food bank. The new Census Bureau report showing poverty rates are at the highest levels in almost two decades tells us that even more families may be turning to our network for food assistance.”

Harry Balzer, vice-president of The NPD Group, Chicago, and the company’s lead analyst and spokesman on matters relating to the food and beverage and food service industries, pointed to how consumers in general were responding to lean economic times.

Consumers facing income pressures tend to first cut back on their visits to restaurants, as the cost per calorie for a sit down dinner may be three times higher than a home-prepared meal, Mr. Balzer said. Income pressures also reinforce the trend seen during the past several years for consumers to select private label or store brands instead of branded products.

Mr. Balzer said the consumer’s goal historically has been to try to ensure his or her food costs don’t rise faster than household income. In times when incomes may not rise at all or may even decline, the consumer seeks ways to lower food costs even more to maintain that relationship with income. In broad terms, this may mean reducing the amount of meat in meals prepared at home.

“The answer they have found during the past three of four years is to prepare fewer dishes, and that may mean not placing meat at the center of the plate as often,” Mr. Balzer said. “We still have meat at the center of the plate for many meals, but not as many as we did five years ago. Increasingly, meat is incorporated into a broader main dish, such as a salad, or a pasta, or a casserole.”

If one incorporates meat in some other dish, one may not require a side dish, other than, perhaps a salad, he said.

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