Rising Prices Hit Home For Food Stamp Recipients

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Christina Hall's weekly grocery shopping ritual begins Thursday night in the kitchen of her cramped mobile home in Fairfax County, with the low hum of the refrigerator and the steady drip of the faucet in the background.

"Shredded cheese, bagels, milk . . . Maybe we can do two gallons this week," she says hopefully, scribbling the grocery list on a sheet of notebook paper. She goes through a cabinet, looks in the freezer, checks a shelf behind the linoleum-covered table. "Yogurt, crackers, bananas." She jots down a dozen or so more items: salad dressing, frozen vegetables . . . "That should keep me at about $50 for the week."

A divorced mother of two, Hall receives $219 a month in food stamps; the fastidious inspection of her cupboards and the dollar-by-dollar addition she does in her head are the only way she can make the allotment last through a month.

At a time when food prices are soaring, a growing number of Americans are struggling financially and local social service agencies are seeing record numbers of applicants, advocates are concerned that the purchasing power of food stamps has shrunk since 1996, when Congress recalculated benefit levels. The result slowed the value of food stamps relative to inflation. If benefits had kept pace with inflation over 12 years, a family with one working parent and two children would be receiving an additional $37 a month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

To qualify for food stamps, recipients must have an income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $22,880 for a family of three.

"An extra $37 a month," Hall said, chuckling. "That would be nice. Might be able to splurge every now and again."

Hall, 38, who lives in a scruffy, tree-lined cul-de-sac of mobile homes in Hybla Valley, one of the poorest sections of one of the country's richest counties, knows that the monthly payment doled out on a blue plastic debit card is meant only to supplement her food budget. The federal government's guidelines make that clear.

But her $8.75-an-hour home health aide job -- about $1,200 after taxes during a good month -- stretches only so far, with rent ($550), utilities ($100, sometimes much more), gas ($180, even in her fuel-efficient Honda Civic), a car payment ($288) and car insurance ($163). That doesn't include other expenses that come with raising a 13-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. The stamps are the family's entire food budget. Skyrocketing food prices and the declining value of the government benefit has made feeding the family a daily struggle for Hall, a first-time food stamp recipient.

Hall wrestled with the challenge the next day as she tried to manage the family's weekly food needs and squeeze in a few extra items for her daughter's birthday party that weekend. Her son had lost his school meal card, which allows him to eat a free breakfast at school every day, so she has to make him breakfast at home until the end of the month, adding an unexpected expense.

"Okay, we can get one package of potato chips and one package of popcorn, okay?" Hall said to her daughter, Rosita, who was having a tough time containing her excitement about the party.

Hall shops at the Aldi on Route 1, a discount supermarket along the frayed commercial strip, where many shoppers go to save money on store brand items that can be as much as 50 percent cheaper than other chains'. The week's dinner plan called for spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, sloppy Joes, tacos and chicken nuggets, plus mixed vegetables with each meal. As she shopped earlier this month, though, she was feeling lucky. Her mother had given her some ground beef and pork earlier in the week. And her son, Richard, was going on a Scout trip, so she wouldn't need as much food over the weekend. (As it turned out, Richard came home a day early, so she had to "wing it for Sunday dinner," she said later.)

Hall made her way through the store using her shopping list as a guide: two gallons of milk, $3.08 each; one package of macaroni and cheese, 59 cents; two quarts of yogurt for her lunch, $1.29. She picked out a box of yellow cake mix and chocolate frosting for Rosita's birthday cake, only to put them back later. Her mother would buy them. Into the cart went vegetables, frozen orange juice and hoagie buns. Bacon and ground turkey, initially on the list, would have to wait. "This! This!" Rosita squealed, pointing to a stack of bagel pizzas at $5.99 apiece.

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