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Use food stamps to make ends meet

Why not save money on groceries if you can? By taking a few simple steps, you can find out whether you're eligible for food stamps. Such assistance can be a real boon for senior citizens on fixed incomes. And if you're worried about a lot of extra hassle or scrutiny at the checkout line, don't be. Food stamps look like plastic credit cards these days. Your benefit amount gets updated on the card by the government each month.

1. KNOW THE ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS. You must be a U.S. citizen or a noncitizen who meets one of several exceptions. Your resources _ such as cash in a bank account, not your home or the full value of your car _ must not exceed $2,000 if you're younger than 60 and $3,000 if you're 60 or older or disabled. You also must not exceed net monthly limits of $776 of counted income for a single person, or $1,041 for a couple. (Note: Not all income necessarily gets counted, because many deductions can come into play.)

2. FIND OUT FOR YOURSELF. To determine whether you might be eligible, use the Internet tool at www.foodstamps-step1.usda.gov, or call or visit your local food stamp office. For help locating the nearest office, call toll-free 1-800-221-5689; in Florida only, call toll-free 1-800-342-9274.

3. ANYONE CAN APPLY. You can visit your local food stamp office and pick up an application, or call and ask to have the form mailed to you. Turn it in as soon as you can; if you're approved, your food stamps will kick in on your application date, retroactively if necessary.

4. YOU'LL NEED AN INTERVIEW. The application process involves an interview with a food stamp worker. Before you go, be sure to clarify which documents you're supposed to bring.

5. PAPERWORK MATTERS. Some examples of necessary documentation might include a driver's license; birth certificate; pay stubs; letter detailing money you get from Social Security; child support verification; your most recent rental agreement or mortgage statement; utility bills; canceled checks for day care for your child; or medical bills.

6. YOU CAN BRING A FRIEND OR RELATIVE. If you need or want to have someone attend the interview with you, you can. And if it's very difficult for you to leave your home, you can arrange for a telephone interview or give someone permission to attend the interview for you.

7. HELP COULD BE ON THE WAY. If you're approved, the amount you'll receive in food stamps will hinge on your individual income, resources and costs, as well as the number of people living in your home. In 2000, single older people received $44 a month on average.

8. DON'T DISMISS OR DOWNPLAY THE SUPPORT. Maybe $44 doesn't sound like much, but if you're on a limited income, it sure can help. That's money you can use to pay for prescription drugs, rent or utility bills instead of food.

9. ASK ABOUT NUTRITION EDUCATION. As a food stamp participant, you may be eligible for nutrition and wellness education for yourself and your family.

10. SPEAK UP. If you're not approved, don't be afraid to ask why. If the answers you receive don't make sense to you, you can ask to speak with the food stamp worker's supervisor. And if you think a mistake has been made in your case, you can ask for a free "fair hearing" of your case.

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services program (www.fns.usda.gov); AARP (aarp.org); Florida Department of Children and Families (www.dcf.state.fl.us)

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