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New breed of American emerges in need of food

By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

Philomena Gist understands why it hurts so much to be on food stamps. After all, she's got a master's degree in psychology.

"There's pride in being able to take care of yourself," says the Columbus, Ohio, resident, laid off last year from a mortgage company and living on workers' compensation benefits while recovering from surgery. "I'm not supposed to be in this condition."

Neither are many of the 27.5 million Americans relying on government aid to keep food on their tables amid unemployment and rising prices. Average enrollment in the food stamps program has surpassed the record set in 1994, though the percentage of Americans on food stamps is still lower than records set in 1993-95. The numbers continue to climb.

Gist, 51, is the new face of hunger in the USA. She says she spent most of her adult life working as a mental health counselor before deciding to try real estate. "I'm a professional person," she says.

As economists nationally debate whether the country is in recession and policymakers discuss ways to drive down gas prices, a new category of Americans combats hunger.

Since 2006, soaring food and fuel prices have combined with lost jobs and stagnant wages to boost the number of Americans needing food aid. More than 41% of those on food stamps came from working families in 2006, up from 30% a decade earlier, according to the latest Agriculture Department data.

They are real estate agents and homebuilders hit by the housing slump, seniors on Social Security, parents of students whose free breakfast and lunch programs don't solve the problem of dinner. Increasingly in recent months, they have signed up for food stamps and shown up at food pantries, trying to make ends meet.

"This last year's been the worst," says Gladys Pearson, 76, a retired corrections officer, as she leaves a Bread for the City food pantry in Washington, D.C., a three-day supply of staples in the basket of her walker. She likens it to the 1950s, when her husband would come home with a small can of milk for their newborn daughter because a big one was too expensive.

Officials on the front lines say the need is growing.

• At food stamp offices, employees are "seeing people from various occupations that they have never seen before," says Vic Todd, administrator of Oregon's Office of Self-Sufficiency Programs.

• At food banks, demand is up 15% to 20% over last year. Pantries are serving "folks who get up and go to work every day," says Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "That's remarkably different than the profile of who we've served through the years."

• In schools, the school breakfast and lunch programs are serving more than 31 million students, which soon will give way to summer programs that serve just 3 million.

Kindergarteners in Baton Rouge are hoarding part of their lunches to eat later at home, says Mike Manning, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.

In Reading, Pa., Peg Bianca, executive director of the Greater Berks Food Bank, sees demand soaring for "weekenders" — backpacks of food intended to help students stay nourished until Monday.

Americans 'are really hurting'

"People are hurting," says Kitty Schaller, executive director of the MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, N.C., where one in six people get emergency food assistance. "They are really hurting in a way that I think may well be unprecedented."

Hunger in America isn't new. The latest government data for 2006 show that 10.9% of households were "food insecure," a bureaucratic term meaning they did not have enough food for a healthy lifestyle at some point in the year. In 4% of households, no bureaucratic jargon was needed; someone was going hungry.

Families with enough to eat spent 31% more on food than those who didn't have enough.

The federal food stamps program has grown, shrunk and grown again since its creation in 1964. It was cut by Republicans when they took control of Congress in 1995. It has expanded during the past eight years, fueled by two economic slumps, relaxed rules regarding assets and an outreach campaign to sign up eligible families.

The program is restricted to households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, or $27,560 for a family of four. They cannot have more than $2,000 or, in some cases, $3,000 in assets, not including homes and, in most states, cars. The average benefit is about $3 a day per person. Cost to the government: $38 billion, rising to $40 billion in 2009.

It's the largest weapon in the U.S. government's 15-program food aid arsenal, which now costs about $60 billion, up 76% since 2001. "We do have a strong safety net available to help families in times of economic distress," says Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Department of Agriculture.

When the Bush administration proposed its 2008 budget in February 2007, it projected that an average of 26.2 million people would get food stamps this year. By the time the fiscal year began in October, however, enrollment already was 27.2 million and growing. For next year, the administration plans for an average of 28 million.

Even so, only 65% of eligible recipients are enrolled. Among working families, only 57% of those eligible for food stamps have signed up.

Gist joined the ranks of recipients after losing her job as a loan officer. She says she was fired the day before she was to be paid her $27,000 share of the closing costs for four loans she negotiated. The mortgage company is now out of business and, in an unfortunate twist, her home is in foreclosure.

She learned she was eligible for food stamps while having her taxes done for free. "It's embarrassing," says Gist, who still hopes to stay in her home despite a scheduled sheriff's sale Friday. "It's humbling."

'Regular Joes' on food stamps

Yet it's not unusual. Kevin McGuire, executive director of Maryland's Family Investment Administration, which runs antipoverty programs, says many new food stamp clients are "regular-Joe working Americans." His state saw enrollment rise 13.8% in the past year, fourth-highest in the USA.

When they get on food stamps, these new recipients find that the program doesn't keep up with prices. The inflation rate for items they're encouraged to buy under the "thrifty food plan" is 5.6% — more than the average 4.7% for food. Prices for basic items such as bread and milk pushed food prices up by almost 1% in April alone; bread costs 14.1% more than it did a year ago, milk 13.5% more.

Families with less than $10,000 in pre-tax income spend a larger share of their income on food — 17.1% compared with a U.S. average of 12.6%, according to a report last month by the Congressional Research Service. Inflation hits them harder.

"Many of the people who are turning to food pantries today are reporting that their food stamps aren't even lasting two weeks out of every month," says Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

The farm bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress last week partially addresses those issues. It would invest $10.4 billion over five years in the food stamps program and food banks. President Bush has vowed to veto the bill because of its subsidies to wealthy farmers, but the House and Senate votes indicate Congress is likely to override him for only the second time.

In the meantime, more Americans will cut corners.

It doesn't "stretch as far as they say it does," says Brenda Tanner, 45, of Asheville, N.C., who raises two teenage daughters on $623 a month in disability payments and $289 a month in food stamps. She buys in bulk and no longer goes out to eat. "Milk is as high as gas," she says. "That's crazy."

Near the Capitol, no more cereal

Even with one in every 11 Americans receiving food stamps, millions who don't qualify also need help. They are joining food stamp recipients at food pantries nationwide, where they receive bags of food intended to last a few days. "Many people are in desperate financial straits who are not eligible for food stamps," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who pushed to pass the farm bill.

Second Harvest, the nation's largest network of food banks, says demand is up an average of 15% to 20% from a year ago.

More than 80% of its food banks reported in a survey completed this month that they could not meet demand without trimming operations or reducing the amount of food given out.

Donations are down, particularly from the federal government as well as private companies. Farmers are selling their crops on the open market at record prices, rather than giving them to the government through price-support programs.

To compensate, the Agriculture Department has traded raw commodities for finished goods that can be provided to food banks. Earlier this month, it chipped in with $50 million in frozen pork patties.

Costs are up, particularly for diesel fuel needed to deliver food to pantries by truck. Nearly half of the food banks now buy some of their food or are considering doing so, rather than relying on donations.

"It's really a perfect storm," says Maura Daly, Second Harvest's vice president of government affairs.

At Bread for the City in Washington, less than 2 miles from the White House and the Capitol, food and clothing director Ted Pringle can't buy cereal anymore because of the price of grain, wheat and corn. Fresh fruit jumped by 3.2% nationally in April. "It scares me to buy fruit," Pringle says.

Food banks across the country are on the front lines as demand increases and supply dwindles:

• In Oakland, the number of monthly calls into the Alameda County Community Food Bank has risen 28% from last year. Since July, each month has set a new record.

• In Tyler, Texas, the East Texas Food Bank has stopped buying rice and pinto beans in bulk quantities because they're too expensive. Some of the pantries it serves no longer can drive up to two hours to the central food bank because of a 64% increase in fuel costs.

• In Detroit, executive director Augie Fernandes is seeing more seniors on fixed incomes "who are very proud" come into the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.

• In Ponca City, Okla., the local food pantry is serving more than 500 people a month, a 20% increase from last year. As a result, it's had to cut their monthly allotments from three bags of food to two.

• In Nashville, program services manager Kelli Garrett sees former volunteers and donors arrive as clients at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. "They feel a certain level of shame having to ask for help," she says.

• In Alaska, 15 remote food pantries have closed because they lacked sufficient government commodities. "At one point, we were down to vegetarian beans," says Susannah Morgan, executive director of the Food Bank of Alaska. Things are better now: They have grape juice, green beans and frozen apricot cups.

• In Orlando, Dave Krepcho of the Food Bank of Central Florida has eight trucks and a tractor-trailer on the road full time, picking up food from grocery stores. He worries about low-income children home from school this summer.

Krepcho, the food bank's executive director, has been in the business 16 years.

"This is the worst that I've ever seen it," he says, "by far."

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