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Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 26, 2008: Food stamp need soars; level of help doesn’t

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Last updated June 26, 2008 11:50 p.m. PT

By LEVI PULKKINEN

P-I REPORTER

Spiking prices of staple foods have put the pinch on Washington’s poorest, who are signing up for food stamps in record numbers but finding the assistance isn’t keeping up with rising costs.

Prices paid by consumers are up nearly 5 percent across the board for groceries in the past year. But prices on some basic foods — grains, milk and eggs — have increased by more than 30 percent in that time, industry sources say.

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Food stamp recipient Janet Farrar said she uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture vouchers to supplement disability payments she receives. Speaking Thursday at a Seattle food bank, Farrar said those vouchers stop far short of lasting her through the month.

“It goes about a week,” Farrar said. “And that’s if you go to QFC and get it on sale.”

The increase in food prices comes as record numbers of Washingtonians struggling to keep their cupboards filled turn to the food stamp program.

More than 40,000 Washington residents signed up for food stamps in the 12-month period ending in March, said John Camp, lead analyst for the state Department of Social and Health Services food program. That’s a 6 percent increase, bringing the number of recipients to 568,909.

The rate had remained essentially steady in recent years, with around 8 percent of the state’s population receiving food stamps through the federal voucher program.

Department administrators first thought the spike was caused by the December storms and flooding. Now, though, increased prices for gas, food and rent as well as the weakening economy may be responsible for the increase, said Glynnis Ashley, administrator for food policy at DSHS.

The food stamp program remains the nation’s largest line of defense against hunger. Vouchers are redeemed at grocery stores for staples, but cannot be used for highly processed or prepared food.

“It’s the biggest weapon we have against hunger in the United States,” Ashley said. “A few dollars just might be the difference between eating three square meals a day or going hungry.”

And a few dollars is all the program offers — benefits to a family of four currently top out at $542 a month, or $4.50 a day for each person.

In Washington, that benefit is available to a family of four with a total household income less than $26,900.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said the state plans to raise that cap to $42,400 this fall. The increase is expected to draw another 23,000 families into the program, which currently serves 294,519 households.

Gregoire said Washington residents are facing the same pressures felt across the nation. Among the hardest hit have been young parents who, she said, face a tougher economy than she and her husband did when they started a family in 1979.

“I don’t know how we would be doing it,” Gregoire said. “I don’t know how a family can afford … to put food on the table.”

Washington Food Industry Association President Jan Gee said rising fuel costs are partially responsible for the increase in food prices. A demand for ethanol, the weakening dollar and greater overseas demand for food also have played a role.

Food retailers have absorbed some of the increased prices and worked to cut costs elsewhere, said Gee, whose organization represents Washington grocery stores. But the system can’t take such wide-ranging increases.

“This is unprecedented,” she said. “There have never been these kind of increases all at once.”

The food stamp program also isn’t designed to handle such rapid cost increases. Camp said the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t increase rates until October, when an annual revision goes into effect.

In the interim, many recipients are turning to Seattle-area food banks when money runs low. But many food banks, already under pressure from rising fuel and food costs, are struggling to keep up with increasing demand.

Farrar said she frequents Northwest Harvest’s food distribution center a few blocks from her First Hill apartment. She said most of the other folks also pick up food at the food bank to supplement their food stamps.

“A lot of us have other benefits,” Farrar said. “It’s just not enough.”

During a visit to Northwest Harvest on Thursday, Gregoire announced that the state will direct $200,000 in emergency funding to Washington food banks to help offset gas costs.

Some food banks have been shuttered because they don’t have funds to pay for gas, said Derek Wertz, chair of bulk food purchase program of the Seattle Food Committee, a coalition of food banks in the city. Others are having difficulty buying food.

Still, Wertz said he hopes those in need will ask for help.

“I’d much rather see (our storeroom) empty,” said Wertz, manager of the Jewish Family Services food bank. “There are resources to help. We all understand that the times are hard right now.”

Information about food stamps and other assistance programs is available at the state Web site, wa.gov. Address and contact information for Seattle-area food banks is available online at seattle.gov.

P-I reporter Levi Pulkkinen can be reached at 206-448-8348 or levipulkkinen@seattlepi.com.

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