Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 2008: Soaring use of food stamps another sign of lean times

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By Alfred Lubrano

Inquirer Staff Writer

Food prices are up, food-bank supplies are down, and more people in the area are receiving food stamps than at any time in years.

These are, social-service advocates say, dire days for families already beset by climbing gas prices and declining wages.

At the kitchen table, the gas pump and the workplace, people are being squeezed and compelled to live their lives with less and less.

But food is the greatest worry.

“We have a crisis,” said Sydelle Zove, interim food-stamp campaign manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

“Meals are scarce,” said Susan Smith, a 44-year-old Chester woman with diminishing means. “I’m 5-foot-10 and weigh 130. I should weigh 150.

“I need some food.”

Newly released state data from the Department of Public Welfare show that 329,000 Philadelphians are on food stamps, a 13 percent increase since 1998.

The increases since then for the surrounding counties are even more startling.

The number of households on food stamps is up 49 percent in Delaware County, 54 percent in Bucks County, 75 percent in Chester County, and an incredible 82 percent in Montgomery County, according to research by Laura Tobin, outreach supervisor for the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center, an advocacy group.

Statewide, the number of people receiving food stamps has risen 40 percent, to 1,186,918, since March 1999, Tobin said. The average monthly amount issued per household is $204.61, according to the Department of Public Welfare.

All this has occurred as food prices in the Northeastern United States have risen 14 percent since 2002 and median wages in metropolitan Philadelphia (excluding New Jersey) have dropped 4 percent during the same period, said Mark Price, labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, a nonpartisan policy-development institute in Harrisburg.

“People’s income is simply not growing as fast as the prices they’re paying for goods and services,” he said. “And the economy is not producing as many jobs, while periods of unemployment for workers are lasting longer.”

Some of the increase in food-stamp distribution is due to significant efforts by advocates to get more eligible people into the program, experts say.

But fast-descending hard times are creating strong incentive for people to find help.

“I’m at rock bottom, and everything in the supermarket is so high,” said Edwina Swinton, 58, a laid-off school worker from the city’s Logan section. She joined the food-stamp rolls this week.

“When there was no food, at least I used to be able to give my grandson cereal for dinner. But look at the price of milk. It’s just terrible.”

Meanwhile, as the food crisis escalates, food cupboards in the area are turning people away or sending them off with smaller amounts of food.

The food warehouse at Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank and hunger-relief organization, is 55 percent full. It was 85 percent full in December, thanks greatly to donations.

“I only see water pouring out of my reservoir,” executive director Bill Clark said.

Clark is considering purchasing food to augment dwindling supplies. “We never had to buy food to give away before,” he said.

But what can be done? Calls from residents to Philabundance for help were up 122 percent in April over March, Clark said.

Nationwide, food banks are seeing 15 to 20 percent more clients than usual, according to America’s Second Harvest, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States.

Even when people show up to collect food, what they get is often not enough. “Food pantries are putting less food in each box,” Clark said. “Maybe 20 pounds, down from 25. You’re not getting as much assistance per trip as you would have a year ago.”

Lighter boxes combined with vital but ultimately paltry food-stamp allotments keep a grinding pressure on poor and working-poor families.

“The help doesn’t help,” said Smith, the Chester woman, who has postponed her wedding because of an oppressively tight budget.

Zove, of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said all hunger advocates hoped that Congress would soon pass the mammoth U.S. farm bill, which is meant to increase food-stamp benefits and help restock food banks. It contains $10.5 billion more than President Bush wanted for these and other programs, Zove said.

That’s partly why Bush has threatened to veto the bill, citing “irresponsible farm subsidies” and other problems, Zove said. That would be bad news for anyone struggling to get by, she said.

“The bill is the best we can hope for,” she said, because it represents significant expansion of needed programs.

Something has to be done, Clark said. And soon. Food problems seem only to be mounting, with little hope in sight.

“We’re about at the point,” Clark said, “where we’re hoping for a Hail Mary pass. It’s getting worrisome.”

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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