New York Times, June 22, 2008: Food Stamps Buy Less; Families Are Hit Hard

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Making ends meet on food stamps has never been easy for Cassandra Johnson, but since food prices began their steep climb earlier this year, she has had to develop new survival strategies.

She hunts for items that are on the shelf beyond their expiration dates because their prices are often reduced, a practice she once avoided.

Ms. Johnson, 44, who works in customer service for a medical firm, knows that buying food this way is not healthy, but she sees no other choice if she wants to feed herself and her 1-year-old niece Ammni Harris and 2-year-old nephew Tramier Harris, who live with her.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Ms. Johnson, as she walked out of a market near her home in Hackensack, N.J., pushing both Ammni and the week۪s groceries in a shopping cart. “And we۪re not coping.”

The sharp rise in food prices is being felt acutely by poor families on food stamps, the federal food assistance program.

In the past year, the cost of food for what the government considers a minimum nutritional diet has risen 7.2 percent nationwide. It is on track to become the largest increase since 1989, according to April data, the most recent numbers, from the United States Department of Agriculture. The prices of certain staples have risen even more. The cost of eggs, for example, has increased nearly 20 percent, and the price of milk and other dairy products has risen 10 percent.

But food stamp allocations, intended to cover only minimum needs, have not changed since last fall and will not rise again until October, when an increase linked to inflation will take effect. The percentage, equal to the annual rise in prices for the minimum nutritional food basket as measured each June, is usually announced by early August.

Some advocates and politicians say that this relief will not come soon enough and will probably not be adequate to keep pace with inflation.

Stacy Dean, the director of food assistance for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington social issues research and advocacy organization, estimates that the rising food prices have resulted in two fewer bags of groceries a month for the families most reliant on the program.

“We know food stamps are falling short $34 a month” of the monthly $576 that the government says it costs a family of four to eat nutritional meals, she said. “The sudden price increases on top of everything else like soaring fuel and health care have meant squeeze and strain that is unprecedented since the late 1970s.”

The declining buying power of food stamps has not gone unrecognized in Washington. In May, Congress passed a farm bill that would raise the minimum amount of food stamps that families receive, starting in October. The bill, which was passed over President Bush۪s veto, will also raise for the first time since 1996 the amount of income that families of fewer than four can keep for costs like housing or fuel without having their benefits reduced.

This month, a coalition led by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. called on Congress to immediately enact a temporary 20 percent increase in food stamps. Officials at the Agriculture Department, which administers the program, say there is no precedent for such an action. Families on food stamps have been hit hard across the nation, but perhaps not as hard as families in New York, where food costs are substantially higher than prices almost everywhere else, including other urban areas, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a research and advocacy group in Washington.

The more than one million New Yorkers on food stamps receive on average $107 a month in assistance, which is slightly higher than the average for the rest of the country. But it is not enough to close the gap in food costs, experts say.

Poor families interviewed in the New York area say that they are not going hungry thanks in large part to the city۪s strong network of 1,200 soup kitchens and food pantries but that they have really felt the pinch. To cope, many say, they are doing without the basics.

June Jacobs-Cuffee of Brooklyn shares $120 a month in food stamps with her 19-year-old epileptic son. She says that even after her once-a-month trip to the food pantry at St. John۪s Bread & Life in Brooklyn, she has had to give up red meat and is also cutting back on buying fresh fruits and sticking instead with canned goods and fruit cocktail.

“It is not a question of running out, yet,” she said. “But it does require very careful budgeting.”

The most recent census data showed that from 2003 to 2006 an average of 1.3 million New Yorkers identified themselves as “food insecure,” meaning that they were worried about being able to buy enough food to keep their families adequately fed. City officials are concerned that the food price increase has caused that number to increase significantly.

“I am much more worried about the state of hunger in New York City than I was 6 or 12 months ago,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. Ms. Quinn said that food pantries were increasingly complaining about being tapped out. She added, “What we are hearing from constituents is that they are having to make tougher and tougher decisions like to water down milk for kids or not purchase medication to keep money for food.”

Yessenia Villar, who lives in Washington Heights and works tutoring children in Spanish and English, knows about tough choices. She says it is getting harder to stretch her monthly $190 in food stamps to cover food for herself, her mother and her 5-year-old daughter. At the end of the month, she runs out of oil, rice and, most painful of all, plantains, which have gone from five for $1 to two for $1, she says.

She says she has stopped buying extras like summer sandals for herself, and has also given up treats like cookies and ice cream for her daughter. “I used to make all my groceries for $150 a month and then have a little extra,” she said. “Now it is, like, crazy.”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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