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More Floridians turning to food stamps

In another sign of worsening economic times, Floridians increasingly are turning to the state for the most basic of necessities: food.

Statewide, there was a 21 percent jump in families receiving food stamps in the past year — one of the highest increases in the nation.

Record high food and gasoline prices, an escalating unemployment rate and fallout from the mortgage crisis are fueling the trend.

"It used to be when you opened the paper (there) used to be 10 to 15 ads for construction jobs," said Stephen Honey, 50, a Safety Harbor father of three. "Nowadays there isn't one."

A gloomy job market and medical problems has the laborer venturing into corners of life he never thought he would see.

On a recent Thursday, Honey and his wife spent the better part of a day at the county's public assistance service center in Largo doing paperwork to keep their $280 monthly food stamps.

In Pinellas, 17 percent more families sought assistance in May, compared to the same month last year. In Pasco, the numbers were almost 30 percent higher; in Hillsborough, 26 percent.

Hernando County was the hardest hit in the Tampa Bay area, with 58 percent more families seeking help. The county also has the area's highest unemployment rate at 6.6 percent.

That's not news to Louis Walsh, who has five children and no job.

The 40-year-old mechanic hasn't worked since moving to Weeki Wachee from Pennsylvania last year to be near family.

"It's not like I haven't tried," he said. "No one is hiring, not even fast-food restaurants."

The family gets by on the $6.79 an hour his wife, Janet, makes as a hotel housekeeper. On Tuesday, they went to the public assistance office in Brooksville to apply for food stamps.

"We've seen a huge increase in the number of people not only seeking, but who are eligible to receive food stamps," said Jennifer Lange, a program director with the Department of Children and Families who oversees public assistance. "I don't think it's any surprise that the economy is a major factor."

Rising prices

Rising food prices are making it harder to stretch a dollar.

Consider: A dozen eggs costs 50 cents more than last year. A loaf of bread, 20 cents more. Bananas have gone up 11 cents a pound, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Over weeks and months the pennies add up. That can be problematic for food stamp recipients because allotments are adjusted for inflation once a year, in October.

Still, Dottie Rosenbaum, a policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says food stamps are not meant to pay for all of a family's food needs.

"To the extent someone has income, 30 percent of their income is supposed to go to food," Rosenbaum said.

People struggling to make ends meet call that a good guideline, but one that isn't always achievable in times like these.

"People are debating whether to buy food or keep their lights on or buy their medications," said Holly Honey, who applied for benefits with her husband last week. She is 43 and on disability due to complications with lupus, an autoimmune disease.

Her husband stopped working in November because of a torn rotator cuff that got infected. Stephen Honey is still recovering, but says he would work if he could find a job.

The family of four was getting by on his $879 monthly unemployment benefits. But those have run out. To stretch their budget, they stock up on fillers like peanut butter, bread and hamburger. Among Honey's specialities: hot dog pizza.

"You cut up the hot dogs all over the pizza … it fills you up," he said. "You have no choice when you've got two boys sitting there."

Clientele diversifies

Florida's food stamp costs will reach about $1.5-billion this year, said Lange, the DCF administrator. The federal government pays the bill.

Statewide, 768,693 families received food stamps in May. Individual recipients numbered 1.5-million. "So far we're able to manage the increase. It's harder and harder," she said.

With the increase, a wider spectrum of clients has emerged, from two-parent families to single mothers to the elderly. Increasingly, those requesting services are employed.

"It's unbelievable," said Sherri Mason, supervisor at the Largo assistance office. "Some people come here who haven't applied in 10 to 12 years, and they say, 'I never thought I'd be here again.' "

On Tuesday, the Walsh family from Hernando was approved for $400 a month in benefits.

Louis said he tried to find work in Tampa but realized the price of gas would negate his $7 hourly pay. Then he considered delivering newspapers in Pasco County.

"But gas was too much even for that," he said. "Between trying to get around and buying groceries for our family, we don't have much left. We can't even go to the beach because it's too expensive to get there."

Staff writer Chandra Broadwater contributed to this report.

More Floridians turning to food stamps 06/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 8:50pm]
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