WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 3 million poor Americans in 24 big cities do not receive food stamps despite being eligible for them, an antihunger group said on Thursday, at the same time food prices are up sharply.
The Food Research and Action Center said local governments should make it easier to enroll, such as taking applications over the phone. It added that Congress should improve food stamp benefits, which average $1 per meal.
Food stamps are the premier U.S. antihunger program, helping 26.7 million people buy groceries during fiscal 2006. About half of recipients are children.
Food prices, stable in recent years, will rise by 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent this year, outpacing overall inflation of 3.2 percent, according to official estimates.
FRAC said its study of 24 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, indicated that 64 percent of eligible people received benefits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, has estimated a 65 percent participation rate using a different methodology.
“Nearly 3 million eligible people are left out of the program in these cities alone,” FRAC President Jim Weill said in an interview. While 5.2 million people are enrolled, “Congress needs to improve access ... and benefits.”
“A common reason for nonparticipation is that households simply do not know they are eligible,” said FRAC’s report. It also cited language barriers, social stigmas, onerous paperwork and difficulty in getting to food stamp offices during the workday.
Based on FRAC’s “local access indicator,” food stamp participation rates in the 24 cities were lowest in San Diego, with 31 percent, Las Vegas at 44 percent, and Houston with 47 percent. They were highest in Detroit, at 98 percent, and Washington and Indianapolis, 86 percent.
Based on fiscal 2005 data, the USDA estimated that 11.5 million people in urban areas were eligible for food stamps but did not participate. The national nonparticipation figure was 13.3 million people.
Lawmakers may revise food stamps as part of this year’s omnibus farm and nutrition law. The House has voted to boost benefits by $4.2 billion over five years. The Senate is expected to act this autumn.
The USDA says food prices are on the rise “as retailers pass on higher commodity and energy costs to consumers in the form of moderately higher retail prices.” The largest increases were forecast for eggs, dairy products, and cereal and bakery products.
Americans spend more than $1 trillion a year on food, mostly to be eaten at home.
The FRAC report was available on the Internet at http://www.frac.org.