As the economy sputters, states are taking extraordinary measures to help people keep food on the table, and the federal Food Stamps program is their primary tool.
This year, soaring food and energy prices and lost jobs have led a record number of people to enter the program -- more than in any year since the program began in 1964. But even as the number of applicants surges, states are reaching out to millions more who may not realize they are eligible or are reluctant to participate.
Only 65% of Americans with incomes low enough to qualify for Food Stamps seek help, leaving many who either go hungry or end up relying on other federal and state assistance programs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program.
With strapped budgets, states have an incentive to use as much of the open-ended federal food aid program as possible, because none of the money comes out of their pockets. USDA funds 100% of the benefits, while states pay a little more than half of administrative costs.
Spending $36 billion, the Food Stamp program is expected to serve 28 million people nationwide in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2008, an 8% increase in participation over the year before, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
"It's smart for states to promote Food Stamps, because that and unemployment checks often are enough to delay the need for other types of public assistance -- such as welfare and Medicaid -- that put pressure on state budgets," said poverty expert Sheri Steisel at the National Conference of State Legislatures. By giving people the money to buy groceries, states also stimulate their local economies, she said.
But despite tough financial times, many people hesitate to accept what they consider a government handout, or they don't think they qualify. A common misperception is that "if you have a job, you can't get Food Stamps," said New Hampshire Food Stamp program director Laurie Green. "But one of the reasons we're seeing such an increase in enrollment right now is people with jobs can't make ends meet."
To address the problem, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) last month held the state's first ever hunger summit -- primarily to mobilize all state agencies to get the message out to poor residents that they should take maximum advantage of the federal food subsidy. "We want everyone to know there's no shame in accessing Food Stamps," said the state's welfare commissioner Julia Kehoe.
Similar campaigns are going on across the country.
Read the full report States Push To Get Food To Needy on Stateline.org's Web site.