|Many poor communities in the US lack access to healthy, fresh and affordable nourishment. Pink areas show these 'food deserts' on this map from the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture
After touring food banks across Tennessee, Marcia Wells was not surprised by the latest statistics showing that more Americans are living in poverty today than at any time since the Census Bureau began first publishing the number 52 years ago.
In the US, 2.6 million people fell into poverty last year, the bureau reported on Tuesday. There are now 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line, and many of them show up at food banks like the one where Wells works.
"We have seen an increase in the number of food insecure households since the recession started," Wells, a communications representative at the Mid-South Food Bank, told Al Jazeera. "The statistics didn't come as a surprise because poverty and unemployment go hand-in-hand with food insecurity."
The poverty line for a family of four in 2010 was $22,314, with 15.1 per cent of the population classified as impoverished. The percentage of Americans living in poverty, compared to the total population, is at its highest level since 1993.
And unemployment remains stubbornly high at 9.1 per cent, meaning 14 million Americans cannot find work. Young people are being hit particularly hard.
"It is all about jobs. In America if you don't have a job you don't have much self-respect," said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin.
"I am concerned about a lost generation," he told Al Jazeera. "The longer a person is unemployed in their 20's, especially non-college graduates, the harder it is to find a steady job with a ladder for promotion."
Marcia Wells sees all sorts of people going to food banks, but thinks the "driving force for the increase over the last two years has been unemployment". Senior citizens, single mothers and other marginalised groups also rely on the service.
"I was at a food pantry distribution centre just recently and met a woman who was raising her two grandchildren," Wells said. "She receives $120 worth of food stamps [government vouchers that can only be used for food] and the money runs out before the end of the month."
"She was so glad there was meat at this pantry. She had not eaten it in a month because it was too expensive. A lot of seniors are forced to choose between buying food or medicine."
In the US, food insecurity often means people do not have sufficient access to fresh or healthy food, said Mark Nord, a researcher with the US Department of Agriculture who co-authored a September 2011 report on food scarcity.
Food insecurity does not just equal outright hunger. Rather it means limited or inconsistent access to adequate food, Nord said.
"About 15 per cent of households in the US are food insecure," he told Al Jazeera. "About a third of those are in the more severe category, where people are eating less than they should be." Some rural and urban poor neighbourhoods are considered "food deserts" as there are not super markets or other shops selling fresh, affordable, nutrition.
Like poverty, food insecurity disproportionately affects certain minority groups.
"Overall, blacks and Hispanics are 2.5 times more likely to face food insecurity than whites," Nord said. "Differences in employment and income explain much of that."
Despite some people being forced to eat less due to increases in poverty, obesity among the poor does not seem to be dropping. More than 33 per cent of US adults who earn less than $15,000 per year are obese, compared with 24.6 per cent of those who earn more than 50,000 a year, according to a June 2011 report from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, which relies on data from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it is not simply an issue of income. "Obesity runs across class lines," Nord said. "That is partially because diets are so bad in a large percentage of US homes."
The American lifestyle
Being poor in America is not that bad, according a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has analysed Tuesday's census data. Eighty per cent of poor households have air-conditioning, 92 per cent have a microwave, and 42 per cent of poor people own their own home.
One third of poor Americans have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV and two thirds of poor Americans have DVD players.
Researcher Timothy Smeeding scoffs at this analysis. "I reckon two people at the Heritage Foundation spent more on lunch today than the cost of a DVD player," he said. "There are certain things that have become regular parts of life."
Unlike much of the world, poverty in the US "does not mean living on a dollar per day". It is more like "eight dollars per person, per day", Smeeding said.
Back at the food bank in Tennessee, Marcia Wells knows poor Americans still have an easier time than people in much of the world. "I certainly see that our problems seem tame when compared to abject poverty and hunger you see in other countries," she said. "But it is all relative and [food insecurity] is no less real here, in relation to the American lifestyle."