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Increasing Prices Make It Tougher For Food Stamp Recipients To Get By

Higher Prices, Weakening Economy Swell Applicants’ Ranks

By ZACHARY ABRAHAMSON | Courant Staff Writer

July 08, 2008

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Angel and Yitza De Jesus didn't knock on Suzette Strickland's door seeking food assistance until Yitza's belly grew larger and the price of milk got higher.

Until mid-June, the DeJesuses, both from Puerto Rico, held steady jobs at the Home Goods distribution center in Bloomfield. They each made about $9 an hour, enough to pay the rent on an apartment in Hartford and put food on the table for their 5-year-old son, Angel Gabriel, without any help from the government.

In June, Yitza's doctor told her she was pregnant and ordered her off her feet. That put her out of work. Friends directed them to the door of End Hunger CT!, a nonprofit food aid group where Strickland works as food stamp outreach director for Hartford County.

The two weren't yet eligible for the federal program because Yitza's last paycheck still counted as June income. Even with rent rising in the face of higher fuel costs and one income, they had to wait until this month to be eligible for $180 in food stamps.

"Come back soon," Strickland said. "I mean it."

As the economic downturn worsens and fuel prices continue to rise, Angel and Yitza are among the thousands of Connecticut residents swelling the food stamp rolls. And with the increase in the price of food outpacing increases in wages, and no boost in the federally funded program's payouts until October, it's getting tougher for food stamp households to get by.

Between April 2007 and April 2008, the number of Connecticut households receiving food stamps rose nearly 8 percent to 112,616, while national growth in the program increased 7.4 percent, according to the state Department of Social Services and a federal advocacy group.

In April of this year alone, 8,060 Connecticut households obtained food stamp benefits for the first time or renewed them, a 16 percent increase over the corresponding figure for April 2007. A few thousand more sought benefits and were not approved.

Despite sharp rises in the price of many food products this year, the amount recipients get in aid has not gone up, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Food Stamp Program, adjusts that number only once a year, in October.

In 6 1/2 years of working at End Hunger CT!, Strickland said, conditions are the worst she has seen.

"When you have to pay for heat, light and rent, there's no money left to pay for food," she explains. "We have people knocking on our door three, four times a day because they're desperate — they need this help."

They don't all qualify. The rules set strict limits on income, and on assets such as bank accounts, which must total less than $3,000. Gross income for an eligible family of four, for example, may not exceed $2,238 a month, with a few minor exceptions.

That means a Connecticut family of four, with two people working at full-time minimum wage jobs, does not qualify for the program because its income is too high.

And with food prices on the rise, the monthly amount of aid each household receives from food stamps often isn't enough to put food on the table. The maximum benefits a household of four can receive through the food stamp program add up to $542 a month. In Connecticut, the average food stamp benefit per household was $193 at the beginning of June, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Between the time USDA starts recalculating the aid levels in June, and the time families see the change in October, inflation can eat away at much of the increase. By January 2008, for example, the new maximum levels set by USDA in October 2007 couldn't pay for the agency's "Thrifty Food Plan," a basket of goods the agency says can feed a low-income family for the short term.

The USDA says that's not the point. Food stamps, a USDA spokeswoman explained, were never intended to cover 100 percent of a household's food costs. The agency says food stamps are a supplement to other aid programs, such as food pantries and school lunch programs.

Advocates and families say that's a fairy tale. Many families, they say, are entirely dependent on the aid to buy groceries — especially at a time when traditional welfare is limited to 21 months in a lifetime for most recipients.

Over the three months ending in May, food and beverage prices on average rose at an annual rate of 5.6 percent.

But basic essentials have seen some of the highest spikes. Data from the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based private advocacy group, shows milk prices, for example, rose 13.3 percent between March 2007 and March 2008. The price of eggs jumped nearly 30 percent. Cheese was up 12.5 percent and bread nearly 15 percent.

In the second-floor office of Gitano Food Warehouse on Park Street, general manager Alfonso Lopez says he regrets upping the price on items such as corn oil and rice — diet staples for many low-income Latino families in the area. Faced with skyrocketing transportation costs, Lopez has had to pay $100 fuel surcharges on many grocery deliveries to his store. To preserve the store's bottom line, he passes those costs on to the consumer.

"What am I supposed to do?" he says. "It all rolls downhill."

For Yitza DeJesus, inflation touched home when the price of a 20-pound bag of Goya white rice topped $13 in downtown Hartford. Today, the same quantity runs nearly $20 in Lopez' store. Even worse, prices of baby formula historically rise even faster than normal inflation.

If prices continue to rise at these rates, food stamp recipients could start fiscal year 2009 in the hole. Inflation will already have eaten whatever October increase they get from the USDA.

"Last Oct. 1 the benefit was enough to purchase the Thrifty Food Plan basket that was priced the prior June," said Ellen Vollinger, Food Stamp director for the Food Research and Action Center. "How long this year's readjustment will remain enough to purchase that basket we just don't know."

Many of the families now turning to End Hunger CT! or programs such as Foodshare, a Bloomfield-based nonprofit that supplies food pantries, do not qualify for food stamps because one or both adults in the household has a steady job.

"The big change is the working families, people who are doing everything they're supposed to do," says Foodshare President Gloria McAdam. "If your budget is just barely balanced, food costs can push you over the edge."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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