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Americans' Food Stamp Use Nears All-Time High

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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fueled by rising unemployment and food prices, the number of Americans on food stamps is poised to exceed 30 million for the first time this month, surpassing the historic high set in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

The figures will put the spotlight on hunger when Congress begins deliberations on a new economic stimulus package, said legislators and anti-hunger advocates, predicting that any stimulus bill will include a boost in food stamp benefits. Advocates are also optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama, who made campaign promises to end childhood hunger and whose mother once briefly received food stamps, will make the issue a priority next year.

"We soon will have the most food stamps recipients in the history of our country," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based anti-hunger policy organization. "If the economic forecasts come true, we're likely to see the most hunger that we've seen since the 1981 recession and maybe since the 1960s, when these programs were established."

The Agriculture Department is set to release the new numbers as early as this week. Agency officials declined to confirm the figures but outlined them in a briefing last month for advocates and administrators of state food stamp programs. Breaking the symbolically important 30 million mark comes on the heels of government data showing that 11.9 million people went hungry in the United States at some point last year. That included nearly 700,000 children, up more than 50 percent from the year before.

Food pantries and other charitable organizations are also reporting an increase in demand from those in need. Visits to local pantries are up by 20 to 100 percent over the past six months, and calls to the Capital Area Food Bank's hunger hotline have jumped 248 percent. Most are from people who have never used food stamps or a pantry before, said Lynn Brantley, the organization's president and chief executive.

Analysts attribute the jump primarily to rising unemployment, which hit 6.5 percent in October and is predicted to increase to 8 percent by the end of 2009, but rising food costs are also a factor. Although prices have fallen from the levels of this past spring, they remain high. In October, the consumer price index for food and beverages had jumped 6.1 percent over last year. Staples such as eggs and bread rose even faster.

For low-income families, who spend a higher percentage of their monthly budget on food, that rise has been particularly painful. Food stamp benefits are adjusted for inflation only once a year, and as of September, the maximum benefit fell $64 a month short of the cost of the thriftiest, USDA-established diet for a family of four. The annual adjustment in October of 8.5 percent largely brought the benefit in line with food costs again, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy group, estimates that if current inflation persists, by December benefits will again fail to match the cost of the thrifty food plan.

"At a time when we have more people turning to the food stamp program, it is less and less able to meet their basic food needs," said Stacy Dean, the research center's director of food assistance policy.

To qualify for the food stamp program, whose name was officially changed last month to the Simplified Nutrition Assistance Program, recipients must have an income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $27,564 for a family of four. The benefits, which average $109.93 a month per person, are based on a plan set by the government to represent a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet. Participants apply locally to receive an electronic card that is used like an ATM card to buy food at most grocery stores and some farmers markets. The maximum benefit for a household of four is $588 a month.

At the Department of Human Services on H Street NE yesterday, the benefits office was busy. D.C. resident Harry Washington, 54, had come to apply for food stamps after losing his job at a Dupont Circle restaurant that closed for renovations last month. Over the past three years, he has received food stamps several times to tide him over between jobs. "This all has been going on awhile. It just depends where you are on the totem pole whether or not you have felt it," Washington said.

Jaqueline Hawkins was also there to sign up. The 47-year-old broke her hip last November, forcing her to leave her job at a Whole Foods Market. Hawkins received short-term disability, then unemployment benefits. Both have run out. "I came for food stamps because my other options have expired," she said. Hawkins plans to begin looking for work after Jan. 1.

Benefit applications are up around the Washington area. In the District, the number of applicants in October was 7.5 percent higher than last year's. In Arlington County, the average number of food stamp applications in the past six months is up 17 percent over applications during the same period last year.

At the Arlington Food Assistance Center, meanwhile, the number of clients has jumped by 25 to 35 percent over last year, said Executive Director Christine Lucas. Lines for food, sometimes with as many as 95 people, begin forming around 7:30 a.m., even though the food pantry does not open until 10.

On a recent morning, one of the early arrivers was Alvaro Ascencio. The 45-year-old, who lost his construction job after 12 years, was hopeful he would find work soon and had turned to the pantry as a stopgap. "If I didn't know about this, I wouldn't know what to do," Ascencio said through an interpreter.

To tackle the problem, supportive lawmakers are pressing to include a temporary bump in food stamp benefits in the next stimulus package. Similar proposals failed to pass twice this year, but there appears to be broad support now for an increase of 10 to 20 percent, advocates and lawmakers said.

Economists say an increase in food stamp benefits would help the economy overall by concentrating relief on those most likely to spend the money quickly, pumping dollars into an economy desperate for demand. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist of the rating agency Moody's Economy.com, every $1 spent on food stamp benefits generates $1.73 of economic activity, more than extending unemployment benefits or offering state fiscal relief.

"Congress has been focusing on the impact on the financial markets," said Dean at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "We want them to focus on the supermarkets and help 30 million people."

In 2009, the new Congress will also have to deal with renewing the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which includes school breakfast and lunch programs and the Women, Infants and Children program that provides money for specific foods such as milk and infant formula. The act is due to expire in September 2009, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, has long been keen to expand eligibility and strengthen mandates for nutritious food in these government-funded programs.


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