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Millions forced to endure long waits for food stamps

A first-time applicant for food stamps who only gave her first name, Ally, waits to be called for her appointment in El Cajon, Calif.
A first-time applicant for food stamps who only gave her first name, Ally, waits to be called for her appointment in El Cajon, Calif. (Gregory Bull/associated Press)
By Justin Juozapavicius and Michelle Roberts
Thursday, June 10, 2010

When Amanda Vaca's husband lost his job, the Texas couple took stock of their finances and drew a startling conclusion: They could not afford to feed their four young children.

So Vaca filled out an application for food stamps. Then the wait began. A month passed, and then two. Some weeks, the food simply ran out.

"There was several occasions where I didn't have breakfast to cook them or all there was was noodles," said Vaca, a customer-service representative in Fort Worth who got laid off shortly after her husband. They waited three months for assistance.

The recession has landed millions of hungry families in similar straits, forcing them to endure long waits for help buying basic groceries. A review by the Associated Press found that dozens of food-stamp programs in 39 states left at least a quarter of applicants waiting weeks or months for food aid, some in areas that were not particularly hard hit by the economic downturn.

Federal law requires applications for food stamps to be reviewed within 30 days of being filed, and even faster for the poorest families. Failure to do so can subject agencies to federal sanctions and lawsuits, but individual families are largely at the mercy of their local administrators.

Among the excuses for the delays were overburdened bureaucracies, staff shortages or program rules. But that makes little difference to parents with hungry children.

"It got to that point where there was nothing. It was scary. It was very, very stressful," Vaca said. "We went to churches to get food, food banks or whatever. I was always searching for places to get food." In fiscal 2009, Texas left about a third of its applicants waiting more than 30 days for food assistance, the worst among states examined by the AP, even though Texas was spared the brunt of the recession.

In Rhode Island, nearly a quarter of new applications were delayed. In Florida, Colorado and Nevada, about one-fifth of applications were processed late.

In the months since those problems arose, some agencies have improved their processing systems, but application delays persist in many places.

Vaca spent days pleading by phone and in person for someone to look at her application. Her family eventually was approved for food stamps and received retroactive benefits for the months they were waiting.

A record 40 million people -- one in eight Americans -- now rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, the official name of the modern food-stamp program, which began in 1961. The number of participating households increased by one-fifth in fiscal 2009, and many states' food-stamp rolls grew by a third or more.

"Never in our lifetimes have these programs been so urgently needed," said Kevin Cancannon, an undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps.

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