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Food Stamp Use Explodes In The Suburbs

Janice Podsada

May 18, 2011

Nhan Do, a supervisor at Five Star Farmers Market in Hartford, says she always schedules extra people to work the first three days of the month. Those are "big shopping days" for people who use food stamps.

Despite modest job gains, Do and other area merchants say they haven't seen a reduction in the number of customers using food stamps.

On the contrary, the number of Connecticut people enrolled in the federal food stamp program has been climbing for 28 consecutive months in a steady progression during and after the officially declared national recession.

"We've seen a lot of people who say they never thought they'd be on the program. All of a sudden they're out of business or out of a job," said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger CT, a Hartford-based nonprofit.

"A lot of people thought of the old food stamps as welfare. Now there are so many people in the program it's not seen as a stigmatizing thing any more," Nolan said.

The numbers back her up: Connecticut's affluent and middle-class towns saw the greatest percentage increase in the number of residents receiving food stamps from 2007 to 2010.

The increase was partly driven by changes in income eligibility rules in Connecticut. As that happened, more stores in more places began to accept food stamps, which are not stamps at all, but blips on a magnetic plastic card, like bank cards.

Nationally, more people are receiving food stamps now than at any time program's history 44.2 million nationwide, far surpassing a previous peak of 28 million people in 1994, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, which contains data through February.

The trend in Connecticut is similar. The number of state residents enrolled in the program rose from a monthly average of 195,090 people in fiscal 2007 to a monthly average of 298,856 people in 2010, a 53 percent increase, according to the state Department of Social Services' annual reports. (The state fiscal year ends June 30.)

Since then, monthly use has continued to climb at an even faster clip.

It's not clear how many Connecticut residents receiving unemployment benefits also receive food stamps because the state Department of Labor does not track those figures.

Last year more than 10 percent of the state's population was served by food stamps, about one percentage point below the national average. Speaking anecdotally, Nolan noted that the stigma associated with food stamps has faded as the percentage of unemployed middle-class recipients increased.

Avon, Glastonbury and Greenwich saw their food stamp rolls increase by 136 percent, 100 percent and 92 percent respectively, well above the state average of 53 percent from 2007 to 2010, although their total numbers remain relatively low. On the other hand, towns such as Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven with 49 percent, 33 percent and 26 percent increases in food stamp recipients were below the state average, according to information derived from the Department of Social Services.

Changes in the program's eligibility requirements have also boosted the program's rolls. In 2009, Connecticut adopted two optional federal rules that allowed the state to lower its income threshold and changed the way an applicant's income was assessed.

The first rule raised the gross income eligibility for applicants from 130 percent of federal poverty level to 185 percent. The second change excluded certain assets such as a person's home, vehicle, retirement account, stocks and bonds from being counted as income.

"These changes really opened up the program," Nolan said. "The program is about eating. It's not about making yourself poor to eat. It's supposed to be a way for people to get through that rough patch in their life."

The national data suggest that the number of new applicants might be starting to level out. Nationwide, from January to February of this year, the number of people enrolling in the program grew by 11,500, the smallest one-month increase in more than two years.

But further job gains might not result in a substantial decrease in the number of food stamp recipients.

Based on the 2009 rule changes, an additional 70,000 older Connecticut residents qualify for assistance, according to estimates by the AARP.

Nationally only 34 percent of seniors who are eligible for food stamps receive them, said Erica Michalowski, AARP Connecticut's community outreach director.

AARP Connecticut and other groups, including End Hunger CT, Foodshare and the Hispanic Health Council launched an outreach program late last year to make older adults aware of their potential eligibility.

"There is a reluctance on the part of older adults to enroll," Michalowski said. "This outreach is trying to change that."

The number of retailers that accept food stamps has grown, in part as a consequence of the increased competition for consumers' food dollars.

Nationally, the number of businesses that began accepting food stamps climbed from 165,521 in 2007 to 216,738 in 2010, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

In recent years, dollar stores, discount retailers and even drugstores have added groceries to their shelves. To capture as much of the market as possible, those retailers also began accepting food stamps.

Walmart, Target, CVS drugstores, Dollar Tree stores and even some gas station convenience stores, are among the 2,100 Connecticut stores that have hung "We Accept Food Stamps" signs in their windows.

One of the biggest changes, triggered by the recession, occurred three years ago when some of the nation's largest warehouse retailers, which typically charge annual membership fees, announced they would start accepting food stamps.

Sam's Club, owned by Walmart, began accepting food stamps in 2008; BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco followed suit in 2009.

"For a long time we just didn't think food stamps fit our model, but we were wrong," Joel Benoliel, Costco's senior vice president of administration and chief legal officer, told the Courant in 2009. "Current events changed our mind. We started getting letters from people: 'I've been self-supporting with a small business for years and this last year just about wiped me out. Now I'm using food stamps and I wish I could use them at Costco.' "

A clerk at Apple Tree, a grocery store at 490 New Park Ave. in West Hartford, estimated that from one-half to two-thirds of the store's customers use food stamps.

"Our main customers use food stamps," said the clerk, who declined to be identified.

One block east, a sign at a Shell Station Food Mart that read "We Accept Food Stamps," had been placed beneath a neon sign advertising lottery tickets.

"In the past, you'd only see the signs on the bodegas and grocery stores," Nolan said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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