Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 27, 2008: Rising food prices pinch Washington’s poorest

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SEATTLE — With food prices rising and the economy weakening, more Washingtonians are turning to food stamps and food banks for relief, but finding the cupboards bare.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said Thursday that the state will raise the income maximum to be eligible for food stamps, and released $200,000 from an emergency fund to help food banks.

Prices of some staple foods – grains, milk, eggs – have increased by over 30 percent in the past year, according to industry sources. Consumer food prices are up 5 percent during that period.

The weakened economy and increased prices of gas, food and rent may be responsible for more than 40,000 Washington residents signing up for food stamps in the 12-month period ending in March, according to state Department of Social and Health Services officials.

The new food stamp recipients marked a 6 percent increase, bringing the total number to 568,909, said John Camp, lead analyst for DSHS’ food program.

In recent years the rate had been steady at around 8 percent of Washington residents getting food stamps through the federal voucher program, which is not designed to handle rapid cost increases. Federal benefit rates won’t increase until October, Camp said.

The vouchers don’t go very far – benefits to a family of four top out at $542 a month, or $4.50 a day for each person.

To qualify in Washington, that family’s household income must be less than $26,900, or 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Gregoire said the state will raise that cutoff to $42,000 for a family of four, or 200 percent of the poverty line. The increase is expected to add around 23,000 families to the nearly 300,000 households already in the program.

Many recipients are supplementing their food stamps by going to food banks already struggling with rising food and fuel costs.

Gregoire announced the release of $200,000 from a state emergency fund to help food banks offset fuel prices.

The cost of shipping food from California to Washington food banks has more than tripled in the past few months, according to Shelley Rotondo, executive director of Northwest Harvest, a statewide hunger-relief organization.

At times, Spokane-based Second Harvest Inland Northwest can’t afford to accept donations from the Midwest or Eastern U.S. due to shipping costs.

“One of the challenges we’ve had for the past couple of years is moving donated food,” said Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest Inland Northwest. “That has certainly gotten significantly more expensive in the past couple of years, and we’re certainly feeling it this year.”

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