Central Valley

Food stamp recipients get help from stimulus

SACRAMENTO -- Thousands of Valley food stamp recipients will get a bump in benefits starting this month, thanks to federal stimulus money rolling into California. Help is also coming to food banks, which will be sent more eggs, cheese and other commodities.

With jobless rates climbing, the boost is coming just in time, advocates for low-income residents said.

"Food banks across the state are being inundated by requests for help -- most from first-time seekers," said Jessica Bartholow, director of programs for the California Association of Food Banks.

Monthly food stamp allowances will jump by 13.6% across the state, meaning a family of four will get a maximum $668 each month, up from $588, state officials said Wednesday. Food banks, meanwhile, will get 10 million more pounds of food, enough for up to 2 million extra bags. The changes were effective Wednesday.

The extra help comes as the Valley's economic picture continues to darken. Small towns are struggling as farmers deal with water shortages. And just this week, Gottschalks, a major employer, announced it was going out of business after filing for bankruptcy in January.

"Unemployment is skyrocketing, and it seems to never end, so we have increased demand," said Sara Vasquez, director of development at Fresno's Community Food Bank, which serves Fresno, Madera and Kings counties.

The food bank expects to distribute 12 million pounds of food this fiscal year, up from 7 million in 2007-08. Some of the bank's pantries have run out at times -- although Vasquez said residents are "really stepping up to the plate" by increasing donations.

Meanwhile, food stamp rolls across the state are expected to swell to 2.8 million users a month in the coming year, up from 2.5 million. Officials blamed the bad economy, but also said they are increasing outreach efforts. Still, about 2 million residents are eligible who don't apply.

"Many people find being on public assistance something that they don't want to do unless it's an absolute last resort," he said.

Yet people who are on their own tend to buy cheaper, less healthy foods because they are trying to stretch their dollars -- and that can lead to health problems that cost taxpayers even more, he said.

The food stamp benefit hike will last through fiscal year 2010. The increase totals $840 million, a small fraction of the $787 billion federal stimulus package, which is also being used for public works improvements, tax cuts and more.

Some Republicans have criticized the package for its massive price tag and the deficits the new spending might leave behind.

But with the state and nation mired in a deep recession, the food stamp increase drew only muted criticism from one of the state's leading conservative groups.

"I do believe in tough economic times we do have to step up to the plate and take care of the most vulnerable," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "However, we would not want this to be an incentive for people not to look for work."

Food stamp recipients don't have to do anything to get the extra money; it will be automatically added to their cards, which resemble ATM cards. To qualify for stamps, residents must pass certain tests, including earning less than 130% of the poverty level. That translates to about $2,297 a month for a family of four.