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Food stamp demand surges as economic crisis deepens

Jin-ah Kim

These days, Project Bread is fielding more inquires about food stamps than ever before.

“In December, we saw a 32 percent increase in phone calls from the previous year,” said Diane Dickerson, director of emergency food resources for the nonprofit anti-hunger organization.

Many households who had never asked the government for help now find themselves struggling with soaring food prices, facing layoffs and house foreclosures.

“There was a time that people were hesitant to apply for food stamps,” Dickerson said. “But now the economy is so bad that people are more willing to look at different resources available for them.”

One resource that Project Bread provides is the Food Source Hotline, in which counselors assist Massachusetts residents to determine their eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

“People really need information,” Dickerson said. “Particularly people who all of a sudden get laid off and all of a sudden need help. We try to provide all [the] information.”

Eligibility for SNAP is based primarily on household income and certain expenses.

“It’s difficult to tell whether or not you are eligible,” she said. “But a lot of people who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit also are eligible for food stamps.”

In an attempt to boost the suffering economy and stem rising unemployment figures, Congress last week passed economic recovery packages that include approximately $20 billion in funding for SNAP, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group.

“Food stamps are one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus because low-income individuals generally spend their available resources on meeting their daily needs, such as shelter, food and transportation,” according to a CBPP report released on Feb. 11.

In the House proposal, about $19 billion would be used to “fund a 13.6 percent increase to maximum food stamp benefits, which would go into effect in April 2009,” the report states.

Massachusetts would receive an estimated $317 million increase in food stamp benefits as part of the recovery packages. It would funnel $6.1 million into the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which in October 2008 assisted 563,068 people to receive food stamp benefits, according to state data released last month.

“The money for food stamps is 100 percent from federal funding,” said Dickerson of Project Bread. “That’s important — that food stamps help the state, because it brings in federal money.”

State officials say they have tried to help more Massachusetts households apply for food assistance. Since last June, low-income households have no longer needed to submit certain asset requirements — such as bank account, retirement account or property ownership information — to be eligible for benefits.

In October, the state also removed the existing cap on the food stamp formula for families who pay for child day care, meaning more funding assistance would be available, Dickerson said.

In 2008, the average food stamp household received a monthly benefit of $181 — not a sufficient amount for a healthy diet according to many experts, including Mary Lynch, a pediatric nutritionist at Dorchester House Multi-Service Center.

“Food stamps are a supplement … it was never meant to be an entire amount, although for some people it is,” Dickerson said. “But it meant to supplement their diet so that they can have a more nutritious diet. That’s probably why the name was changed from the Food Stamps [Program] to SNAP.”

To extend food assistance besides food stamps, Dickerson said that Project Bread helps people in need to find emergency aid in the neighborhood. Two main types of food emergency programs are food pantries, which provide people with an average of three days of groceries, and soup kitchens, which serve complete, nutritionally balanced meals.

Emergency foods can be especially useful for people waiting in long lines for food stamps due to the high volume of applications, Dickerson said.

The current caseload is 305,243 applications for SNAP assistance, double the number in 2004, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance’s Web site. It takes a maximum of 30 days to process an application.

“People should know that resources are there for them,” Dickerson said. “Sometimes people have hard times, but people should have some patience.”

For more information on the Food Source Hotline service, call 800-645-8333 from Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.