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Food stamp usage increases

Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:16 PM

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The economic downturn has forced many underemployed and out-of-work people to turn to the state for relief at grocery stores.

So much so that food stamp usage in Hernando County has skyrocketed.

Out of about 173,142 people who live here, 19.75 percent (or 34,203 people), received food stamps in August. That's up 7.5 percent from last year and a 246 percent increase from five years ago, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Put another way: Roughly one in five Hernando Countians receive food stamps, which is on a par with state usage.

The good news: The average person stays on food stamp assistance for 10 months, compared to 26 months from January 2011, a sign that the economy is improving, said DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie.

"So people are using them more short-term to get them through a hard time until they become self-sufficient," Gillespie said. "That's exactly what the program was intended for."

People are finding work, even if only part-time, and are getting off assistance, she added.

While the increase since 2007 in the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer — or food stamp — cards has been dramatic, there are signs that food stamp usage in Florida is "flattening out," she said.

"In another few months, we'll see the overall numbers start coming down," Gillespie said.

But that doesn't mean they'll stay down.

Unlike past recoveries, this one has included thousands of unemployed people dropping out of the job hunt entirely — a factor that makes the unemployment rate look better than it actually is, said John Scholz of the Wisconsin-based Institute for Research on Poverty.

"The number of disappointed workers is skyrocketing still," Scholz said.

The DCF processes food stamp claims, which are based on a person or household's income. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the money directly to those receiving the aid.

Sandra Dixon, Hernando County Health Department nutrition director, said food stamp recipients educate themselves to buy more nutritional products at grocery stores.

"It's important that those people who meet the income guidelines receive the food stamps and learn how to make healthy food choices with the dollars that they receive," she said.

Dixon said there are many elderly residents in Florida who may be entitled to food stamps but, for whatever reason, choose not to get them.

Dixon said another opportunity needy people have to access nutritious food is the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

WIC is a federal program that provides nutritious foods to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children up to age 5.

Tampa Tribune reporter Kevin Wiatrowski contributed to this report.

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