Bakersfield Californian, May 24, 2008: Tough economy: County sees jump in food stamp use

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By JOE BOESEN, Californian staff writer

e-mail: | Saturday, May 24 2008 12:00 PM

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 21 2008 3:32 PM

Economic troubles have sent an increasing number of Bakersfield residents to seek aid in the form of food stamps from the county.

Even the employed are seeking help as gas prices teeter close to $4 a gallon.

Romancy Martin, 21, of Bakersfield was attempting to sign up Tuesday afternoon for both Medi-Cal and food stamps at the Department of Human Services۪ main office in Bakersfield.

Although Martin has a job at Rad Thrift Store, she said high gas costs prompted her to seek public help.

“Gas is higher; it takes a lot out of a paycheck,” she said while waiting in the parking lot.

Her application this month is the first time she will receive government aid and she is “not liking it.”

From January 2007 to April 2008, the number of people receiving food stamps from the Kern County Department of Human Services increased 16 percent, from 26,619, to 30,937.

“We think that is pretty substantial,” said Pam Holiwell, assistant director of employment and financial services in the department.

Talk of a recession, high gas prices and housing woes have spread paychecks thin, causing more people to seek government aid in the form of the Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which acts as a debit card for buying food. People no longer receive actual stamps to buy groceries.

The 16 percent increase in the number of people receiving food stamps since 2007 overshadows the 3 percent year-over-year increase from January 2006 to January 2007.

Mary Erwin, a program director with Department of Human Services, said qualified applicants can get food stamps within three days if their case is urgent, but usually the application process takes 30 days. The monthly allotment depends on the number of family members, their employment status and their housing costs. Program participants cannot buy alcohol, tobacco, pet food, stationary items or sundries like toothpaste and deodorant with the food stamps.

Holiwell said the county distributes food stamps but the funding comes from state and federal sources.

It is not only the unemployed who receive food stamps. Rising costs of living are causing those with jobs to look to government aid.

Mercedes Garcia, 20, of Bakersfield said she started receiving both food stamps and welfare payments last year.

“I didn۪t want to get on it but I had to,” she said, adding she does not make enough at her job at Victoria۪s Secret. She said she receives about $350 a month in food stamps.

Nationwide, one in 11 people, or about 27.6 million Americans, receives food stamps on a monthly basis from the federal government, according to Cordelia Fox, regional director for Public Affairs of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. That number has steadily grown from 2000, when 17.1 million people received food stamps, to last year, when 26.4 million received the help.

About 2.2 million in California alone receive food stamps.

The Department of Human Services does not keep track of the number of people who apply but are not granted food stamps.

Area charitable organizations are also seeing an increase in people seeking food.

Love Inc. Bakersfield, an organization distributing food, clothing and other items for about 50 area churches, has seen a 10 percent increase in people requesting help over the last six months, executive director Carmel Hicks said.

She said the organization, which helps allocate resources to individuals from a broad network of churches, previously only worked with homeless or the unemployed.

“We see more people who are working. We see more of the low-income families who are coming,” she said. “They bring in minimum wage but costs keep going up.”

Pam Fiorini, executive director of Golden Empire Gleaners, said the food distribution organization is supplying groceries to new clients who have been referred to them.

In February, the organization supplied about 9,500 people with groceries but that number jumped in March to about 15,000 people.

“People are stepping it up for larger orders,” to serve a greater amount of people, Fiorini said.

Additionally the number of senior citizens participating in their senior program has increased from 3,500 to 4,100 people from February to April.

At the Salvation Army, about 600 people asked for food and clothing last month, an increase from about 450 people in April of last year, said Major David Ebel, the Kern County coordinator.

Ebel said another difficulty the needy encounter is high gas prices.

“People needing services call us and they say OK, now I need to raise money to pay for gas to get over there,۪” he said. The gas situation was “never a discussion before three months ago.”

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