Food stamp usage spikes in state

Charlie Breitrose

Battered by the recession, growing numbers of Massachusetts residents are turning to food stamps, with the state doing more to promote the program and make it easier to apply.

The number of people using food stamps has gone up by 30 percent over the past year, and many communities in the MetroWest, Milford and Franklin areas have seen spikes of 50 percent or more.

"People who had jobs for 20 or 30 years who just can't imagine they would ever need this have come in," said June David-Fors, director of Northborough Youth and Family Services Department which helps locally. "Many of them are hesitant, but when it affects their children they come in. We have at least one family a week come to us with some of these needs."

David-Fors said her department has seen the number of people asking for help feeding their families double over the past year. The Northborough Food Pantry and Helping Hands - which provides food baskets during Thanksgiving and other holidays - have been very busy.

"We have seen the economy and people's loss of jobs leading to the increased number of applications to Helping Hands and the SNAP programs," she said.

The rise in requests started about a year and a half ago, David-Fors said, at the time when stock prices were diving. People who never thought they would need food stamps have been coming in, she said.

The caseload in Massachusetts in August 2009 was more than 87,000 higher than August 2008, increasing to 371,032. Officials in the state Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) point to efforts to increase awareness of and enrolling in the food stamp program - now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) - as a factor in the increase, but the dominating factor is the poor state of the economy.

Northborough has had one of the largest percent increases of people using food stamps in the MetroWest/Milford/Waltham areas, according to statistics gathered by the DTA.

From September 2008 to September 2009 the number of cases in the SNAP program rose 68.2 percent in Northborough. Millis (80 percent) and Upton (70.8 percent) also had major jumps. The largest increase was Weston, which jumped 152 percent, but the town has a relatively small number (58) of people receiving food stamps.

In terms of the numbers of cases, the larger towns and cities had the biggest increase. Framingham had the most with 1,346 more this year, followed by Waltham (1,127), and Milford (814). Significant increases were also see in Marlborough (785) and Newton (711).

Jerry Desilets, director of planning for the South Middlesex Opportunities Council, said his program does not register people for SNAP, but he has heard about more and more people seeking help.

"I can only say anecdotally, but the need is up greatly," Desilets said.

State officials have tried to spread the word about the SNAP program, and make it easier to take part, said Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the Department of Transition Assistance. She said the reasons for the increased numbers are twofold.

"The economy certainly is having an impact," Kehoe said. "In Massachusetts, the Patrick Administration has really emphasized since the beginning that we want to really decrease hunger and increase nutrition."

Massachusetts distributes $90 million each month in SNAP benefits, Kehoe said. The benefits are fully reimbursed by the federal government, she said, but the state pays 50 percent of the administrative costs.

While she does not worry about the money running out for SNAP benefits, Kehoe said the Legislature cut money for DTA case workers and administrators this year.

The DTA sought segments of the population that might not be using food stamps as much as they could be, such as elders.

"One of the reasons why they weren't using at the same rate, was problems with the stigma, and also there was a lot of paper work for a relatively low benefit," Kehoe said.

The push to enroll seniors has worked, Kehoe said. In fiscal 2007, the number of elders increased by 50 percent.

The application process also received an upgrade, Kehoe said. In the past, most people would visit one of 24 DTA offices around the state - including Framingham, Milford and Worcester - to apply for the program, but that is changing.

"We have come into the 21st century and you can do more on a computer, through the mail or on the phone," Kehoe said. "You don't have to physically come in to the office."

Qualification for SNAP benefits is based on household income. The income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program. For a couple with no children, the maximum combined income is $1,579 a month, and for a family of four the maximum is $2,389.

People no longer receive actual food stamps. Instead they are issued an EBT card, which works somewhat like a debit card. The EBT dollars are automatically deposited each month and are taken out when people shop.

The benefits have grown, too, Kehoe said. The maximum assistance for a family of three is $526 a month, but the average family of three receives $250 in aid.

Generally, Kehoe said, the EBT money can be used for groceries, but not hot prepared food. Massachusetts has pushed for the SNAP dollars to be useful beyond supermarkets, and to encourage buying healthy food.

"We are trying to work with other organizations to try to make sure people are using SNAP benefits on healthy items," Kehoe said. "We are putting EBT machines in the farmers market, doing cooking demos, and we are having some collaborations with health centers."

DTA will spend $50,000 to put in the terminals at farmers markets. As of September, 34 of 200 farmers markets in the state accepted EBT cards.

Efforts to make the system easier to use and navigate appear to be working.

"It is much easier to apply," David-Fors said. "You can do it online, or we help people and fax it off. They don't ask for nearly as much information as the fuel assistance program, which can be cumbersome."

People seem to be reaching out more for help, and the stigma may not be there in these tough times. At the Natick Service Council, which runs the food pantry in town and provides other services, inquiries about food stamps have become more common, said director Anne Keliher.

"One of our case managers told me they do have more and more clients ask about (food stamps), and how to apply," Keliher said. "In the past she would have to tell them about it, initiate the conversation. Now they are asking about it."

For more information about getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in Massachusetts call 866-950-FOOD (3663) or on the Web go to www.mass.gov/dta.

Charlie Breitrose can be reached at 508-626-3964 or cbreitro@cnc.com.