With the economic slump putting a pinch on many Americans’ wallets, millions of people are looking for a little extra help to cover the cost of their next trip to the grocery store.
In record numbers, struggling individuals and families are relying on the use of food stamps to get them through difficult financial times. The federally funded program — which was officially renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2008 — has become the sole means of support for some, while others are using its benefits to supplement their depleted earnings.
According to data released in January by the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, the number of Americans on food stamps hit nearly 38 million in October, the highest in the program’s more than 40-year history. That’s a growth of 6.9 million from just a year earlier and an increase of 45 percent since 2004.
“The need is in many ways out of control right now,” said Beth Chambers, who has seen a dramatic rise in the number of clients seeking assistance through Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Boston. Chambers, the organization’s director of community services for the greater Boston area, said that in addition to those seeking aid because they are unemployed, growing numbers of the working class are looking for ways to stretch their paychecks.
“This is definitely the day and age where you either pay your rent and you pay the utility bill, or you buy food. A lot of people can’t do both at the same time,” she told Our Sunday Visitor.
As more people find themselves in need of assistance, Catholic organizations around the country are stepping up efforts to ensure that there is a strong enough safety net to take care of people’s basic needs.
For those who come to Catholic Charities for help, the first step is often to assess the individual’s situation and to help them determine what type of government assistance they might qualify to receive. Since many have never before had to apply for aid, it may not have occurred to them that they could be eligible for food stamps, said Nicole Bruno, SNAP outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington, Va.
“I see people who are living on a really limited budget, but they don’t know these programs exist,” Bruno told OSV.
Bruno, who works mainly with senior citizens, a population that comprises nearly 10 percent of all food stamp recipients nationally, walks clients through the process and helps them determine what benefits they may be eligible to receive. If they are likely to qualify for SNAP, she then helps them complete the lengthy application form and prepares them for their in-person interview with the local Department of Human Services.
“I try to ease the burden of learning about the program, of having to fill out the very daunting application, and let them know that if they have questions, I am available,” Bruno said. “That is often very helpful for them and reduces some of their anxiety about picking up the form.”
Catholic Charities also helps people receiving food stamps to budget their weekly allowance to maximize the use of their benefits. Recipients can also save any unused funds from month to month so that they have something extra to fall back on if the need should arise, Bruno said.
But even though SNAP gives recipients a stable means of buying food, in many cases it is not enough for struggling families. As a result, Chambers said that many people on food stamps are now adding other forms of assistance, including trips to multiple food pantries, just to get by.
“We see a lot of people who get the maximum amount of food stamps, but they are also feeding a lot of mouths in a time when the economy is not great, and that means the food prices go up,” she said. “So that money is not going as far as it used to go.”
In Oregon, where more than 17 percent of the state’s population are now receiving SNAP benefits, overwhelming numbers of people are looking for other ways to supplement their food needs. The St. Vincent de Paul Food Recovery Network in Portland, Ore. — just one of the groups working to feed the area’s hungry — distributed more than 800,000 pounds of food last year and served nearly 10,000 meals though its “mobile kitchen,” a modified school bus that travels to rural neighborhoods to prepare and serve nutritious meals. The organization also offers supplemental food programs for children, families and seniors.
Jacque Grieve, director of the Food Recovery Network, said that, unlike SNAP, their programs have no eligibility requirements and thus people can get immediate relief while maintaining a sense of privacy and dignity.
“We do not require that anybody bring us in proof of income,” Grieve told OSV. “In all of the programs here at St. Vincent de Paul, when somebody comes through the door and has a need, we fulfill that need.”
When people come in search of food, Grieve added, the organization attempts to assess the person’s situation so that they can point them to additional sources of assistance, whether food stamps, help with paying their bills or other programs that provide sustenance during difficult times. Ideally, she said, they would be able to give a person enough resources to stay afloat while working toward achieving the stability to become self-sufficient.
But with times being so tight and aid organizations also struggling to fund their efforts, it has become a challenge just to provide temporary assistance, Grieve said.
“Our dream is to be able to sustain people for one to three months so they could get back on their feet, but the need is so high that just to keep people sustained where they are at right now is the priority,” she explained. “If we had the dollars we could help more people than we are able to now, but the reality is that everybody out there needs those same dollars.”
Chambers added that until the economy as a whole improves she doesn’t expect the demand for food assistance and the reliance on food stamps to lessen any time soon.
“I don’t see any possible solutions in the near future,” she said. “We just have to continue to do what we do — whether it is making a referral someplace or tracking down as many resources as we can find — and continue to open our doors and our hearts to everyone who comes in.”
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.
By The Numbers (sidebar)
According to recent food stamp statistics issued by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service:
$542 is the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four
$222 is the average monthly benefit of food stamp recipients
2.2 is the average size of a household receiving food stamps
49 percent of food stamp recipients are children
41 percent have income at, or below, half of the national poverty line
33 percent have zero net income
11 percent also receive welfare benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program