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Hunger In Every Zip Code

By Hilary Bentman
Read the original article at The Intelligencer.

This economy has forced some locals to do something they’ve never done before, and probably thought they never would: sign up for food stamps.

The number of Bucks and Montgomery county residents using food stamps to buy groceries has increased significantly in the last few years.

“We’re seeing a lot of first-time users. They may have been receiving a six-figure salary a few years ago,” said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

But in this economy, said Morgan, “everyone is one disaster away. It could be a layoff, medical emergency, mortgage payment. It’s so easy to fall into the cycle of poverty.”

In October, 37,610 people in Bucks County were using food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to buy food. That’s a 13 percent jump over October 2010 and a 106 percent increase since the start of the recession in December 2007, according to the Coalition Against Hunger.

In Montgomery County, as of October, there were 47,897 people using SNAP, an 18 percent increase over October 2010 and a 107 percent increase since December 2007.

The hunger relief organization Philabundance tracks SNAP users by household. The numbers are just as telling.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of households receiving the benefits increased 54 percent in Bucks and 63 percent in Montgomery, based on statistics from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Overall, the percentage of suburban households getting SNAP in 2010 was low (4 percent in Bucks, 4.4 percent in Montgomery), compared to Philadelphia, where it topped 20 percent.

“But the change in Bucks and Montgomery has been a much greater change in percentage than in Philadelphia. In those counties it was a sea change,” said Philabundance President Bill Clark. “There is hunger in every ZIP code in the Delaware Valley.”

Officials say these numbers illustrate the changing face of hunger, from urban/rural generational poverty, to working, middle-class families new to these realities.

With the need rising and no signs of improvement on the horizon, those in the charitable food system worry about potential state and federal cuts to programs like SNAP.

“In a word, we’re terrified,” said Clark. “No one has money. The temper in Washington seems to be on the austerity side. There’s not a whole lot of enthusiasm for expanding benefits or keeping them where they are.”

Morgan calls any potential cuts “irresponsible.”

“Food isn’t a luxury. It’s a basic need,” she said. “We are endangering the lives of children and seniors.”

Providing assistance for groceries is one of the ways The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas fund helps close the gap for local families in need this time of year. The agencies that administer the holiday program — The Bucks County Opportunity Council and Keystone Opportunity Center — determine the eligibility of applicants and the most appropriate way to provide assistance.

The agencies report that need in the suburbs is high this year, echoing the figures that show an increased dependence on food assistance programs.

For decades, a stigma has surrounded the food stamp program. People have been too embarrassed or ashamed to use it. Morgan said research shows most people won’t apply for food stamps until they’re on the verge of homelessness.

But the stigma is easing, especially following the program’s switch to a debit card system, with funding electronically replenished once a month.

In some parts of the country, massive “midnight runs” occur on the first of each month when many states replenish accounts. Families, who ran out of money before their new cycle begins, are desperate to buy food and will wait in the parking lots of 24-hour grocery stores until they get word their account has been replenished for the month.

Pennsylvania staggers its allocation throughout the month so not all SNAP recipients receive their benefits on the same days, said Morgan. That means these midnight runs are not as large or pervasive.

“We still see people out at parking lots at midnight. It still happens. People are still waiting,” said Morgan.

Cashiers at Giant Food Stores in New Hope, Bensalem and Fairless Hills have anecdotally reported seeing SNAP customers on the first of the month. But the rush is not so great as to require additional cashiers on those days, said Giant spokesman Chris Brand.

Bucks County experienced suburban Philadelphia’s highest percentage-point increase in the number of people living in poverty last year.

In 2009, 3.4 percent of the population of Bucks, or 21,572 people, lived below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census. Last year, that number grew to 37,830 people, or 6.2 percent of the population.

That represents a 2.7-point increase, the highest in all of the five Greater Philadelphia counties, and the second-highest numerical increase after Philadelphia.

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