Kansas City Star, May 27, 2008: Food stamps can۪t keep up with rising prices

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The Kansas City Star

It۪s the last week of the month, summer۪s coming, and a gallon of milk costs $4.

A perfect storm brews over area food banks, and it foreshadows a hot, turbulent season ahead for nearly 28 million Americans now getting monthly food stamps:

•In the past year, prices for bread and milk have climbed as much as 14 percent. But food-stamp allotments, by law, can۪t be adjusted for inflation more than once a year in October.

This summer, it means recipients will be struggling with the same first-of-the-month payments that price adjusters set in 2007, when the cost of nutritional items recommended in the program۪s “thrifty food plan” rose only about 5 percent.

•With school out, strains will worsen. Federally funded breakfast and lunch programs, serving 31 million low-income pupils, will give way to summer nourishment programs feeding fewer than 3 million.

•Federal officials fear that the food-stamp rolls, already approaching record numbers, could spike even higher when hurricane season arrives in June. The 2005 thrashings of Katrina and Rita tossed almost 2 million Americans into the food-stamp program, if only for a month or two.

•Hunger pangs will be felt even in farm-rich Bates County, Mo. In the coming months, hefty crop prices expected to be snatched by corn and soybean growers there may not reach the lives of the rural needy.

“Our population in Bates County is about 17,000,” said Joyce Fitzpatrick, who runs the community food pantry in Butler. “And we۪re serving 10 percent of those people out of this food pantry.”

Federal officials are considering tapping $1.7 billion from a contingency fund to cover newcomers to the nation۪s $38 billion food-stamp program before the fiscal year ends in the fall.

An Agriculture Department spokesman said the emergency boost would not bump up payments to those already receiving benefits, however.

Even for families now receiving close to the maximum allotment for Amanda Loupe of Kansas City, her husband and three kids, it۪s $576 per month soaring food costs require that they scrimp and stretch to keep cupboards stocked.

“We go through two gallons of milk a day,” said Loupe, 25, whose husband lost a welding job earlier this year. Do the math, and milk alone consumes more than 40 percent of the family۪s monthly subsidy.

“I go to Save-A-Lot and Aldi۪s just to make it stretch,” Sonduree Tilford said of her $268 allotment. The single mother from Kansas City has been eligible for the program since her divorce five years ago.

“Even though she۪s thin, my 7-year-old daughter can put down the food cereals, pizza rolls, yogurt. She really loves fruit. And all of those prices are going up.

“I don۪t want to tell her she can۪t eat.”

For the first time since the record-setting year of 1994 before Congress enacted spending cuts about 27.5 million Americans are continually relying upon food-stamp payments. They۪re made through electronic transfers onto a debit card, replacing the actual “stamps” of years past.

The rolls have swelled more than 6 percent since the spring of 2007.

About 825,000 Missourians were enrolled as of April, up from 591,500 five years earlier. Enrollment in Kansas climbed in that time from 160,700 to 182,400.

The program, designed as a “supplement” to monthly meal budgets, is restricted to households with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $27,560 for a family of four.

According to the Agriculture Department, about a third of those households have working people, and tens of millions of additional Americans who qualify for the benefits don۪t seek them.

In Kansas City, the strain on food-stamp recipients more than half of whom are children has led to longer lines and emptier shelves at food pantries, especially during the second half of a month. Agencies already face dwindling food supplies because of high prices for farm commodities and for the fuel needed to transport goods from donors, said Karen Siebert, a spokeswoman for Harvesters, the Community Food Network.

“We have to work harder to get less food,” she said.

Harvesters in 2005 trucked 312 pounds of food for every dollar spent on fuel. This summer, Siebert said, the haul will drop below 190 pounds of food per dollar of fuel.

A needed shipment arrived late last week in the garage of the Don Bosco Family Support Center in Kansas City: canned corn, pinto beans, white rice, 1-pound boxes of cheese.

Volunteer James Collins stuffed a bag for Mary Campbell, who is raising three teenage great-grandchildren.

“They walk around the house saying, I۪m hungry,۪ ” chuckled Campbell, 67, imitating a grumpy teen. “All three will eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast today, a bowl tomorrow, and pretty soon those Frosted Flakes I buy two boxes for $7 are gone.

“I get hungry too, but I don۪t eat to get full. I just eat to kill the hunger pains.”

Carla Brewer, who directs the support center, pointed: “That door? To walk through that door and tell someone you don۪t have the funds to feed your family, it takes a lot of guts.

“The first-timers, most of them apologize. And most of them cry.”

She sighed at the thought. A very teary summer looms.

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send e-mail to

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