A Food Stamp Challenge That We All Can Help With

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Marylanders are struggling to feed themselves.

Walk down the aisles of Safeway, Giant or Santoni's in Baltimore, and you'll see shoppers clutching coupons, comparing items and eliminating some of them from their lists after discovering that prices have jumped yet again.

Bread is up more than 15 percent over last year, and eggs cost 23 percent more. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the Consumer Price Index for food -- which measures the average cost of food in the United States -- rose 5.1 percent from May 2007 to May 2008, the highest annual increase in 17 years. Steep increases are expected to continue for the remainder of the year.

This burden is being felt by many across the state, but for those who were already living paycheck to paycheck, the increase in food, energy and gas prices has become a crisis. In Maryland, almost one in 10 households now face a constant struggle against hunger. As prices continue to rise, so will hunger.

The federal food stamp program, which helps low-income people and families afford nutritious food, is a first line of defense against this hunger. More Marylanders are signing up every month, with enrollment increasing 13.8 percent over the past year, the fourth-highest increase in the nation. Food stamps are not being used just by unemployed individuals but also by workers who face layoffs, reduced hours, stagnating wages and a rising cost of living. Nationwide, more than 41 percent of people on food stamps came from working families in 2006, up from 30 percent 10 years ago.

This is a crucial program, but it hasn't kept up with the times. We saw this firsthand when we participated in the Food Stamp Challenge in March. The Challenge, which has been taken by members of Congress, state and local representatives, faith groups, advocates, students and others, required us to live on an average food stamp benefit -- just $3 a day -- for one week. Living on such a budget meant meals consisting of peanut butter on white bread, night after night of pasta and drinking enormous amounts of water in an effort to fend off hunger.

The Challenge also highlighted choices that many lower-income people face every day. The most heart-breaking choices involve families. Parents will often eat less so their children have more, a sacrifice that can sap the adults' energy, making them less efficient at work and more likely to get sick.

The Food Stamp Challenge was an eye-opening experience, one that both of us were relieved to see end for ourselves. But for low-income people, making ends meet is a challenge that never ends. There is some good news. Congress recently passed a farm bill that includes almost $10.4 billion in new funds for food stamps and other essential nutrition programs. The bill will increase the minimum monthly food stamp benefit, improving benefits for most households, and raise the limits on resources that households may have and still qualify for food stamps.

With the new provisions going into effect Oct. 1, all of us in Maryland must work to make sure that those eligible for food stamps know how to get them. Weakness in the economy and rising food prices probably will continue in the near future, so the program is more important than ever.

It is up to all of us to spread the word about the importance of food stamps and to make sure our fellow Marylanders survive the challenge of this economic downturn.

-- Kimberley Chin -- Kevin McGuire

Baltimore

Kimberley Chin is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. Kevin McGuire is executive director of the Family Investment Administration in the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

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