food expenditures, Hunger in America, food insecurity, food price variation, charitable sector, food pantries, federal nutrition programs, social safety nets

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The pressure of rising food prices on low-income households is often assumed to be primarily an issue for developing economies, where fluctuations in food staple prices can have dramatic consequences for food security and social and political stability. Observers often note that Americans benefit from relatively low food prices and spend far less to feed their families than their counterparts in many other parts of the world. Indeed, the average American household spent 7.6% of their household expenditures on food purchases at home in 2009, while the comparable percentage exceeded 40% of household expenditures in diverse countries such as Mexico, Ukraine, and Indonesia. When contrasted to other American expenditures, such as housing costs (34.4% in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), it is not surprising that food prices do not often emerge as a topic of concern. However, for families who routinely struggle to make ends meet, they must trade off which bills to pay each month to meet their basic needs. Recent episodes of food price inflation in the midst and aftermath of the Great Recession are particularly challenging for these families. An examination of families' desperate struggle to afford basic needs and to weather shifts in their purchasing power suggests that both the public and policymakers have hastily overlooked the impact food prices have on low income families.