The Tennessean, April 14, 2008: ‘Hard times’ push more to request food stamps

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Staff Writer

Rising gas and food prices in an economy facing recession are forcing more Tennesseans to do something they never expected ask for help feeding their families.

Participation in the federal food stamp program here and nationwide is approaching 2005 levels, when Hurricane Katrina scattered the poor and suddenly disadvantaged across the country.

The program which adds an average of about $100 to a family’s monthly food budget is limited to those who take home less than federal poverty line wages. Food bank workers say they’re seeing more working professionals, putting pressure on pantries when donations are low.

“When I first started doing this, we had pregnant teenagers, we had seniors,” said Margaret Ingram, who coordinates a Second Harvest food pantry at Donelson Christian Church. “Now, I can’t tell you how many times this year I have had someone come in and say, ‘I never thought I would be here.’ ‘I have never had to ask for help before.’ ‘I am so ashamed.’

“We try to tell them this isn’t anything to be embarrassed about. It’s just one of those hard times for a lot of people.”

Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, which collects food and distributes it through area food pantries, has served 1,100 more households to date than at this time last year.

Last month in Tennessee, 407,104 households nearly 6 percent more families than during the same period in 2007 turned to the federal food stamp program for help buying food.

The Congressional Budget Office, the financial analysis arm of Congress, is predicting 28 million Americans will be enrolled in the federal food stamps program by next year, bringing national participation to levels unseen since the 1960s.

Downturn hits home

The increase in food stamp recipients is an indicator of the economic well being of American households because of the program’s income restrictions, said Stacy Dean, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ director of food assistance policy.

For example, a family of four with at least one working member can net no more than $1,721 per month after partial deductions for housing, child care and transportation costs.

States like Tennessee have done a good job identifying, vetting and connecting people in need with food stamps, Dean said. Benefits are accessed by debit card.

Demand has in Tennessee has been up since 2001, said Richard Dobbs, who directs food stamps policy for the Tennessee Department of Human Services. It has grown steadily with the number of poor people living here and follows changes in the state’s economic tide.

“You can pretty much map the food stamps participation over time,” Dobbs said. “Changes in the program and changes in the economy, they pretty much mirror one another.”

When fuel prices went up and stayed up last July, for example, the number of families receiving food stamps grew from 391,456 in July to 398,687 in November.

The offices at Manna Inc., a Nashville nonprofit agency that connects families with food aid, routinely went hours without a call last year, said Executive Director Dale Gray.

This year, a 30 percent increase in inquiries means there are often messages waiting for the staff and steady calls all day. Gray is hearing stories about increasing rents and mortgages and struggles to pay bankruptcy settlement agreements and medical bills.

“We have, on more than a few occasions this year, had to talk to them about some of the other emergency food options,” Gray said. “These are people who are actually worried about their next meal.”

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