U.S. food stamp use up sharply, sign of hard times

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 9, 2008 6:28pm EDT

A lunch meal portion waits at the Part of the Solution (POTS) soup kitchen and food pantry in the Bronx borough of New York, in this file image from December 13, 2006. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Files

A lunch meal portion waits at the Part of the Solution (POTS) soup kitchen and food pantry in the Bronx borough of New York, in this file image from December 13, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Files

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some 27.88 million Americans received food stamps in March, up 1.5 million from a year earlier, according to the latest U.S. government figures which antihunger experts pointed to on Monday as a sign of economic distress.

"What's happening is we have a large number of families in poverty who are losing income while their expenses are going up," said Stacy Dean of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank.

Food stamps help poor people buy food. Benefits average $1 per meal.

Enrollment totaled 27.88 million in March, the latest month for which figures are available, up by 219,000 people from February and up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from March 2007. The Agriculture Department, which runs the program, made the figure public late last week.

"Food stamps is the tail, not the dog. The economy is in decline so people turn to food stamps for help," Dean said.

The record for food stamp participation is 29.85 million people in November 2005, which included emergency benefits to victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, said USDA. Second-highest was 27.97 million people in March 1994, said the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger group.

"Now is the time for Congress to pass temporary increases in food stamps, extended unemployment insurance and other targeted relief that will stimulate the economy and help struggling families," said James Weill, FRAC's president. He pointed to May's increase in unemployment, to 5.5 percent.

Food stamp enrollment has exceeded 27 million people each month this fiscal year. USDA estimates enrollment will average 27.98 million people in fiscal 2009, which begins on October 1, at a cost of $40.3 billion.

A U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman declined to comment.

(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio)

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