TAMPA — She sat alone in the stuffy waiting room, her thin hands folded in her lap. "I shouldn't be here," she said, mostly to herself. "I shouldn't have to be here."
Lizvette Perez surveyed the dingy interior of the state office building. She saw a young mother with two toddlers dangling off her arms, a broken-looking man dragging a sleeping bag, a man in a starched shirt carrying a leather briefcase.
She didn't want to see anyone she knew. She had been putting this off for months, trying to convince herself things would get better. They got worse.
Perez, 32, a single mom, shares a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and son. She works full time at Hertz Car Rental at the airport, but her income just isn't enough. When the electricity got turned off last month, her mother told her: If you won't do this for yourself, do it for Roberto. He is only 8. He shouldn't have to be hungry.
So the other day, after taking a nap so she could stay awake through the overnight shift, Perez drove downtown and got in line to ask for food stamps.
"It's embarrassing," she said, waiting for a clerk to call her name. "I never thought I'd have to do this."
• • •
Florida leads the country in food stamp requests. Last week, the state said one in every 10 Floridians is on food stamps. The number of new applicants — like Perez — has spiked by 45 percent in the last two years.
"Most of the new people have jobs, or just recently have become unemployed," said Terry Field, spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families. "I don't think anyone expected this huge increase in need. These are folks who have worked all their lives and never had to ask for assistance."
To apply for food stamps, you fill out an application online, then sign up for an interview. A family of four earning less than $2,297 a month is eligible for $588 in food stamps. That's less than $5 a day per person.
Still they come, packing the waiting room when it opens every morning at 8, telling their stories in quiet voices.
• • •
"Lizvette Perez?" a clerk finally called out. Perez stepped forward and peered through a small window into a cubicle where a man sat at a computer. "Okay, take a seat," he said. "Now, who is living with you?"
Perez told him about Roberto, and her mother, who is 54. They moved here from Puerto Rico two years ago to give the boy a better education. They chose an apartment right across the street from an A school. Her mother works at Neiman Marcus, selling jewelry.
Everything was great, Perez said. Until April.
"My mother was making, maybe, $2,000 a month in commissions before then. I was working nights to be home with Roberto after school," she said.
But people stopped buying expensive jewelry. Her mother's income trickled to half, then 10 percent of her former earnings.
And Hertz laid off three other workers — which meant Perez had to be flexible to cover any shift if she wanted to keep her job. She had to put Roberto in the after-care program at school. It cost another $200 a month.
"Everything is just … too much," she told the clerk. "All our bills are behind. We're just juggling. This month, we pay the car. Next month, the power. Who will wait longer? What do we need most?"
She couldn't afford to pay for Roberto's school portrait this year. She didn't want to buy a Christmas tree, but her son kept begging. She started making soup instead of buying his favorite, Lipton chicken noodle. She won't answer her phone because it's always someone demanding money, reminding her how much she owes. Whenever she sees someone walking by her car, she's sure it's the repo man. Last month, she finally scraped together enough to pay the rent, but it was late. So the landlord charged her another $50.
"There's just no way to catch up," she said.
The clerk asked if she had any assets. "Any savings or checking accounts?"
"I have a checking account."
"What's the balance?"
• • •
The state needs four weeks of pay stubs. A copy of Perez's child support check from his dad in New Jersey. Receipts from Roberto's day care.
Once Perez turns in all those documents, the clerk told her, she will have to wait about 30 days. Then she will receive a letter with a debit card she can use at the grocery.
That is, if she is approved.
"Can't you tell me that now?" she asked. She would feel better knowing.
The clerk looked up from his computer. "You'll get a letter."
• • •
That afternoon, Roberto was hungry when Perez picked him up from school. She drove him to the grocery and bought a half-gallon of milk. She can't afford a whole one anymore.
"Can we eat when we get home?" Roberto asked.
"Yes," she promised. "I'll make you something."
He doesn't beg to go to McDonald's as often as he used to. But he'll tell you how much he misses Chicken McNuggets. And Lipton soup. "Those were my favorites."
Perez hasn't told him she can no longer afford such indulgences. She didn't tell him she spent the day signing up for food stamps. She doesn't want him to worry.
When the electricity was shut off for three days just before Christmas, and Roberto couldn't take a warm bath or watch SpongeBob, Perez took him to the park until dark. Then they played with flashlights in the living room — a big adventure around the two folding camp chairs that substitute for a sofa.
"Do you want a sandwich?" Perez asked when they got home.
Roberto nodded and got out his homework. While he worked on his social studies, she cut the crust off two slices of wheat bread. She added slices of ham and turkey and unwrapped a square of orange cheese.
"Four words," Roberto said, smiling after the first bite.
He looked up at his mom and counted on his fingers, "Compliments to the chef."
He gobbled half the sandwich, then declared, "I'm full." He wrapped the rest in a napkin and put it in the refrigerator. For the next time he gets hungry.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.