BRANDON — With two small children and a husband in construction, Jennifer Marcus is an expert on the recession.
Her family is living with a relative. Unable to find work, the family lost its home to foreclosure. The children's clothes come from Goodwill.
And every month they use $588 in food stamps.
"It's a little bit embarrassing not to be able to support your family," said Marcus, 25, of Brandon. "We really don't enjoy it, but it's that or not eat."
Marcus and her family are in good company; their middle-class bedroom community has seen a net gain this year of 1,187 food stamp cases, a 42 percent increase. Food stamp aid also is up sharply in Carrollwood, Palm Harbor, Wesley Chapel and New Tampa, areas better known for affluence than public assistance.
Tough times and program advances that allow great discretion have thousands applying for benefits from home computers, then using debit-style cards to do their shopping.
"We are all seeing the same kind of thing," said Lourdes Benedict, regional operations manager for the Department of Children and Families in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"A lady walked in, with her son in the lobby and their puppy, too." The electricity had been off in their house for some time, she said.
"And they lived in a nice house. They had nothing to eat. She had lost her job. She was with her child, desperate."
In Fort Myers, epicenter of the state's foreclosure crisis, "we're packed every day," said program spokeswoman Erin Gillespie.
"We have people who never thought that they would apply. People who at the height of the boom started a business, maybe a tile company or a plumber. They never thought they would be in this position."
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Families not familiar with the program might not realize that:
• "Stamps" are a misnomer. Gone are the coupons that used to look like Monopoly money. Today's electronic benefits cards look almost identical to bank cards. Even the name "food stamps" is being replaced with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
• A visit to a government office, crying children in tow, is often unnecessary. Applicants without computers can apply at dozens of libraries and community centers that advertise the name "Access Florida."
• Food stamp money comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the same agency that keeps agribusiness afloat. Think of it as your own little stimulus program. By one program estimate, every $5 in food stamp benefits generates $9.20 in the local economy.
• A state Web site provides a prescreening test, income limits and benefits. Owning a house won't preclude you from getting food stamps, as long as it is your homestead.
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As unemployment and foreclosures become the norm, program officials believe the stigma against food stamps is decreasing even in the middle class.
People seem more incredulous than embarrassed, Benedict said.
"It's more of, 'The economy is like this now, we're all in this together,' " she said. "It's almost like a disaster. Typically, applicants will tell the waiting room greeters, 'I've been working all my life. I can't believe I'm here.' "
A longtime program employee, Benedict is proud of the technological advances that allow families to get help privately, around-the-clock.
"It's a great help," said Carmen Silva, 70, of Citrus Park, who cares for her grandchild and daughter, who suffered a stroke after childbirth.
"Social Security just is not enough," she said. "I believe that many people misunderstand or label the program. You use it when you need it."
While the benefits are supposed to supplement a family's food budget, the stimulus plan passed by Congress could result in higher monthly allotments. A recent state analysis showed that benefits could go up by about 13 percent in Florida.
Despite a caseload that has already gone up by 51 percent statewide, local officials are urging residents to ask for help if they need it.
"Fortunately," Benedict said, "because of the economy, we haven't had turnover."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.