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Rising Prices Hit Home For Food Stamp Recipients

"No, Grandma's going to order pizza tomorrow for the party," Hall answered, checking the price on a package of frozen french fries before throwing them back. Looking over the shopping cart, which included a package of Fruit Roll-Ups and a few other items that Rosita requested, Hall said, "we're almost at $50, anyway."

Later, in the comfort of her small trailer, festooned with Barbie-themed birthday decorations from Wal-Mart, she looked over the receipt -- $48.06. She looked satisfied .

"Well, this allows me to get away with spending $55 for next week," she said.

For the working poor of the Washington region, stretching the monthly food budget in a sagging economy is particularly difficult, because food prices in the area are consistently higher than the national average, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research, an Arlington County-based group that tracks the cost of living in hundreds of places across the country.

During the first part of this year, the group said, the region's food prices were 8 percent higher than the national average. For instance, a pound of ground beef averaged $3.33 for a Washington area shopper, compared with $2.64 nationally. That's a difference of 26 percent. A dozen eggs were 10 percent higher, while a 10-pound bag of potatoes cost 40 percent more.

The consumer price index for food has increased faster than in two decades, and it is especially grim news for people who rely on government subsidies.

"Food stamps aren't meant to supply all of a family's food, but for many people, it's become a way of life. . . . It's a struggle to make them last," said Reuben Gist, director of advocacy and outreach for the Capital Area Food Bank. He cited a 2006 study by America's Second Harvest, a hunger-relief organization, that found that only 16 percent of food stamp recipients said the allotment lasted them an entire month. "People on food stamps are calling us saying they have no idea what they are going to do."

Food stamp benefits, which average about $1 per person per meal, are based on a plan set by the federal government designed to represent a very low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet. For a family of four, the cost of the diet, known as the Thrifty Food Plan, was $567 a month in April. But, under the benefit rate set in October, which was based on June 2007 food prices, a family of four receives about $542 in benefits.

Last week, Congress overrode President Bush's veto of the $300 billion farm bill, which includes $200 billion for nutrition programs such as food stamps, school lunches and emergency food assistance. The legislation will help bring food stamp benefits in line with inflation and stop the erosion, according to national experts. But the new regulations won't kick in until October and will only make up, on average, $5 of the $37 gap.

"Next year will be the first year in the modern history of the food stamp program when food stamp value is the same as the year before," said Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Hall said she has had to adjust her expectations. "I think I first noticed when I bought what I usually buy -- eggs, milk, you know, the basic stuff -- and it cost me over $60 for a week. I thought there was a mistake," she said.

It wasn't always like this for Hall. For several years, she had a job as a receptionist, making $15 an hour. The difficult times started when she was laid off and took the home health aide job soon afterward for nearly half the wage.

She has employed a few tricks to save here and there: picking up food from food pantries, grilling meat and vegetables on the porch to keep the gas bill down; rationing the medication that manages her Crohn's disease by only periodically taking pills that she is supposed to take daily. She and her ex-husband agreed, through a mediator, that he would pay for Rosita's after-school care, clothes and other essentials for the children.

"Our life has changed. . . . My kids notice the changes, there's no doubt about it," she said, sitting on her porch. "There are things I can't buy anymore, little things like desserts, or if I say we have to be careful how much we eat. It's not just them; we all feel it. We all notice."

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