Joan Gross and Nancy Rosenberger, both professors of anthropology at Oregon State University, conducted in-depth interviews with 76 low-income households in two rural communities.
"Paying the mortgage, keeping the electricity on, making sure you have enough money for medical care, these were the priorities," Gross said in a statement. "The people we talked to thought of themselves as middle class, even though they might be on food stamps and make a wage far below the poverty line."
Even when people knew what foods they should be eating, they stuck with food habits acquired while growing up, the researchers said.
"People said they didn't have enough money eat to healthy foods and there was a perception that boxed and processed food was always cheaper," Gross said. "We found that those who used food pantries or gleaning groups did not get enough fruits and vegetables in the winter and their diet suffered as a result."
The findings are scheduled to be published in the December issue of Food, Culture & Society.