Charleston Daily Mail, March 26, 2008: One in 6 West Virginians is on food stamps
by Justin D. Anderson
Daily Mail Capitol Reporter
About one in every six West Virginians gets food stamps, the highest level of participation in at least 30 years.
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Amid rising food and fuel costs, the assistance is becoming worth less and less.
And supplemental food programs for poor families are struggling to keep up with the added demand as donations are on the decline.
Last month, 274,487 state residents received food stamps. That’s up from 246,890 just five years ago, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
A total of 122,877 of the state’s estimated 743,064 households currently receive food stamps. That’s up from 105,365 households in 2003.
But while the number of people on the program has jumped sharply, the federal government has raised the average per-person monthly benefits over that time by just $12 to $85.
Meanwhile, the cost of food is expected to jump by up to 4 percent this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Food costs have been increasing by at least 2.4 percent each year since 2004.
Added to that budget strain are record gasoline prices.
Nationally, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas today is $3.26, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. A year ago, the average cost was $2.59 a gallon.
Sarah Young, a policy specialist with the Department of Health and Human Resources, says the agency is seeing more of the state’s working poor applying for food stamps in order to make ends meet.
“Even those eligible for lower amounts are coming back onto the program because they have less to spend on food,” Young said. “These are historically higher rates. I think even nationwide, we’re at our highest rates.”
Nationally, more than 26 million Americans were on the food stamp program last year, according to the federal agriculture department.
The food stamp benefit is based on income and the number of people in a household, Young said. Monthly benefits range from a minimum of $10 to $1,219 for a 10-person household with little to no income.
Young said the benefit was always meant to supplemental a family’s income, not to totally cover a month’s worth of groceries.
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Increased demand on food pantries and soup kitchens seem to indicate that poor families are running out of resources to buy food earlier and earlier each month, officials said.
Carla Nardella, executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank, said demand around the state is up, while food donations are decreasing.
“We never have enough food to totally give everybody what they really want,” Nardella said.
Nardella said in 2006, the organization distributed 5.7 million pounds of food to pantries in the 48 counties it serves. Last year, they were only able to distribute 3.9 million pounds.
Both food and financial donations to the organization are down, Nardella said. She blames high food and fuel costs. People who usually donate don’t have the money to do it as much anymore, she said.
And those who visit the food pantries are feeling the pinch.
“What happens is, when everything else raises, they can only get so much for the dollar value they have,” Nardella said. “So they end up knocking on the door.”
Nardella said she’s also seeing an increased demand for new pantries to open in communities across the state.
“That is even another struggle,” she said. “It’s hard to have enough food for the ones we already serve.”
To help pantries maximize the money they have to buy food, Nardella said her organization is using its financial donations to make more deliveries.
That saves the pantries from having to drive to the food bank’s Gassaway location.
“We do everything we can to try to stretch their dollars,” Nardella said.
Contact writer Justin D. Anderson at jus…@dailymail.com or 348-4843.