Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Food stamp use on rise in middle-class suburbia

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."

• • •

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.

• • •

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

Food stamps in the suburbs

Dec. 2007


Dec. 2008 cases

Brandon 2,8184,0051,187
Palm Harbor1,5142,189675
Pinellas Park4,5585,9501392
Citrus Park1,5972,088491
Wesley Chapel1,0251,377352
New Tampa1,5192,104585

Source: Florida Department of Children and Families

• Would food stamp benefits help you? Find out at

Food stamp use on rise in middle-class suburbia 02/14/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 11:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Jones: Bucs need success to get national respect


    Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones offers up his Two Cents on the world of sports.

    No respect

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during the second day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  2. Hopes fade after landslide destroys Chinese village (w/video)


    Crews searching through the night in the rubble left by a landslide that buried a mountain village under tons of soil and rocks in southwestern China found 15 bodies, but more than 110 more people remained missing.

    Vehicles and people line a road leading to the site of a landslide in Xinmo village in Mao County on Saturday in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. More than 100 people remained missing after the village was buried under tons of rocks and soil.
  3. Rookie Jake Faria dissatisfied with performance in Rays' loss to Orioles

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The rookie pitcher walked to his locker Saturday after tossing the fourth quality start in as many tries to begin his career. He held the potent Orioles bats to three runs and for six innings gave his team a chance to win.

    Orioles third baseman Manny Machado tags out the Rays’ Mallex Smith at third after a rundown in the first inning.
  4. Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights

    Human Interest

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Rockhill didn't know what to expect Saturday, but by noon people were knocking on the door of his bar Right Around the Corner in Grand Central.

    (From left to right) Emma Chalut 18, gets a rainbow sticker on her cheek from her sister Ellie, 15 both of Jacksonville before the annual St. Pete Pride parade in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. This year the route was changed from the Grand Central and Kenwood area to Bayshore Drive.
[EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  5. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald dies

    TALLAHASSEE — A former Florida Supreme Court justice, who wrote a decision that prevented lawyers from excluding jurors because of their race, has died.

    Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald died Saturday, the court said in a statement. He was 93.