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Food Stamp Users Feel the Pinch

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Food Stamp Users Feel the Pinch

AP Photo/Paul Beaty

The rising cost of food means more than 27 million people in the U.S. are using some kind of government assistance to stock their kitchens. Applications for food stamps have more than doubled in some areas since last year. The Agriculture Department, which runs the food stamp program, says stamps are only supposed to supplement a family’s food budget. But recipients and those who work with them say their monthly allotments aren’t stretching as far as they once did.

Laura Diaz begins her all-day grocery marathon at about 8 am, when she rounds up her three daughters—aged 9, 7 and 4 to take them to school. She’s unemployed right now. Diaz’s husband Jose-Luis is a machinist who works at night. Their son, who’s three, stays home with his dad during the day—along with the family’s bird and 5 chihuahua terrier mixes.

DIAZ: (speaking in Spanish) Alright, see you later.
Husband: Okay, bye.
Child: Bye, Daniel!
DIAZ: Got everything? Bye! Bye! It’s all right, just don’t mind my mess in my van.

Diaz’s navy blue 1990 Dodge van is a mess. It also costs $60 dollars to fill the tank. But she considers that a sound investment: she can drive to where she can get the most for her food stamp dollars. She’s been on stamps for about 7 years.

DIAZ: It’s embarrassing at first you know—I’m one who does get shy at times. But you know what? I says, ‘Hey, I gotta do something to help the husband,’ and that’s what I did. I applied for food stamps and I got it.

Diaz is forty-something and tall, with short black hair, powerful arms and an easy laugh. She wants to get a job eventually. Here’s the catch. She doesn’t have a high school diploma, and any job she gets wouldn’t pay enough to both buy food and pay for childcare. But it would pay too much for her to stay on food stamps. The bulk of her husband’s paycheck goes toward a hefty mortgage. Here’s how much this family of 6 has to eat on for all of June: $332 in food stamps. With that in mind, Diaz drives to a warehouse-sized place called Food for Less. Her list is based on what the newspaper circulars say is on sale.

DIAZ: Onions, I have garlic, I have peaches, jalapenos, and broccoli and the barbeque sauce and the milk, and the rest of the things are I didn’t put down but they’re somewhere in my head.

She knows a gallon of whole milk costs $2.48 here, and gets 4 of them—hoping it’s enough to last this week. We go home to drop off the milk and then it’s over to Cermak Grocery.

She gets broccoli, bananas,chicken and cilantro, but not everything she wanted.

DIAZ: There’s not a good sale today. I guess I have meat in the freezer, so that’s okay.

After every stop she does the math—back in the van she looks at the receipt.

DIAZ: Okay, I spent $28.86. And my remaining, well, my remaining balance is $247.54. So you imagine that money goes quick.

So quick that the food stamps aren’t enough to make it to the end of the month. So Diaz goes to the Casa Catalina food pantry—where she also volunteers. She spends a lot of time helping out there, and gets everything from food to furniture there, when she needs it.

PANTRY NUNS: How are you dear? You found the place?
DIAZ: More like we went to the wrong one!

Sister Mary MacIssac says Casa Catalina serves more than 300 families a day.

MACISSAC: And many people come in this area that don’t live here. And so we have to tell them we can only give emergency food one day, and then they have to go to a pantry in their neighborhood.

Here at Casa Catalina, David Esparza mans a cubicle for the Illinois Hunger Coalition, where Diaz gets her stamps. He says food stamp applications have doubled since January. Esparza is seeing more layoffs, especially in seasonal professions like construction. And after an unusually cold winter, many people still paying for last season’s heat.

ESPARZA: This one woman who had an overdue bill of over a thousand dollars, I’ve seen $2000 and that’s like the number one thing they tell me. It’s like, my bills are killing me, like I don’t know what to do, and I think that’s what they’re facing.

Food stamps are one of 15 government nutrition assistance programs, and the Agriculture departments says most recipients use several of them. For instance, Laura Diaz’s kids get free breakfast and lunch at school. Now Esparza says a new demographic is calling the Hunger Coalition hotline, like the 50-something man collecting unemployment for the first time.

ESPARZA: He actually had a Phd in clinical psychology but he couldn’t find any work.

More 27 million people use food stamps right now, but the Agriculture department estimates that in all, more than 42 million people are eligible. The government is trying to make the program more accessible in various ways, including a database of low cost recipes, and guidelines for stretching a budget while eating healthfully.

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