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Food Stamp Demand Up

This article is more than 11 years old.

Almost 28 million Americans receive food stamps these days. And the number is rising.

In Massachusetts, there's been an increase of almost 10 percent since last year.

Meanwhile, the price of groceries has also gone up, but the value of the food stamps has not.

That, as WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports, means more families are finding it harder to make ends meet.TEXT OF STORY:

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Kim and David Monaghan's family loves to eat. But the cost of food stresses them out. Big time.

KIM MONAGHAN: One time I went shopping and I spent $400 on like meats and vegetables. I can't explain to you how I spent it but I did.

TONESS: The Monaghans rent the first floor of a double-decker in Attleborough. They have three daughters, one 12, and 11-year old twins.

As food costs more, money spent on food has became a source of tension between them.

DAVID MONAGHAN: I actually thought it was her one time. so I went shopping. I couldn't believe it. I spent like $300. It was just vegetables and things like that. I was like, wow, she was right.

TONESS: Now, when Kim Monaghan goes to the grocery store she only buys things that are on sale.

KIM MONAGHAN: That's too much, like a lot of things here are just too much....even the tomatoes. Look at the tomatoes....eeesh...

TONESS: The Monaghans both work full time. She is a teacher's aide at a head start program, and he is a baker at Dunkin Donuts. Together they bring home $1,800 month, not enough to pay rent, gas, electric bills and feed their family.

So they depend on $454 dollars in food stamps each month. Problem is, no matter how much the price of apples, eggs and meat go up, the Monaghans will still get $454 dollars a month.

KIM MONAGHAN: OK, this is where I go into a state of shock.

TONESS: Monaghan leans over the refrigerated meat.

KIM MONAGHAN: These are the chicken thighs on sale...99 cents. This isn't bad. I'll get a few of these.

TONESS: Monaghan picks up four large packages and says she can spread them over two meals.

But she gasps when she sees the ground beef.

KIM MONAGHAN: It's a luxury to have hamburgers now. Fresh hamburgers.

TONESS: The price of ground beef has gone up 7 percent since last year, when the federal government decided the minimum amount a family can spend to eat nutritiously.Since then, bread costs 16 percent more.
Eggs have skyrocketed by 35 percent.

Monaghan sighs and places a single carton of eggs in her cart. But she fills the carriage with boxed noodles on sale, a dollar a box. And jars of tomato sauce for the same price...20 cartons of yogurt, milk, cereal, frozen dinners, and snacks for the kids. The only vegetables she buys are two bags of frozen spinach.

No chips, cookies or candy, but she does get soda. On sale.

KIM MONAGHAN: It's gonna be on EBT please.

TONESS: It's gonna be on EBT please. "E-B-T" stands for "Electronic Benefit Transfer". Food stamps are no longer actual stamps. Instead, Monaghan swipes a card through a scanner. Monaghan says saying those letters, "E-B-T" is embarrasing but far better than counting out conspicuous stamps at the check out counter.

In Massachusetts, nearly a half million people depend on foodstamps. That's one in 13 residents. The highest number ever.

In the last year, use of foodstamps has jumped 9 percent.

JULIA KEHOE: As the economy worsens people who may have never accessed public assistance in the past are asking for food stamps.

TONESS: Julia Kehoe is the commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, the state office that administers food stamps. She says more two-income families and people with college degrees are asking for help.

And while the numbers are high, they could go higher since only 40 percent of the Massachusetts residents eligible for food stamps are using them.

KEHOE: A lot of people feel like it's going to be too hard to get on it for a relatively low benefit. In the last year in particular we've made efforts to make sure that people are eligible for the maximum benefit that they can receive and we've streamlined the process.

KIM MONAGHAN: Kim Monaghan returns home with her groceries. Her daughters meet her at the van and search ravenously through the bags before taking them from the car.

Monaghan's eyes open to the size of quarters as one of her twins opens a package of fruit snacks, cranes her head back, and empties it into her mouth.

KIM MONAGHAN: Snacks for lunch. I told you, snacks for lunch

TONESS: Monaghan pulls out the bill to show her husband David.

KIM MONAGHAN: All together...every little thing on here is on sale...because I had a $10 coupon, the only thing I bought was chicken, because that was the only thing on sale, sorry.

TONESS: Monaghan spent a quarter of her family's food stamp allotment on less than a week's worth of groceries.

Her husband David says $454 doesn't go very far these days.

DAVID MONAGHAN: Well, in a way I'm grateful for what we get. I mean, ya know...I also been here all my life and pay taxes. Until they make that adjustment there's not a lot you can do.

TONESS: If they run out of money, they may just put off paying a utility bill.

They'll live like this as long as food prices continue to go up, at least until October when the federal government adjusts food stamps to meet the cost of inflation.

But the Monaghan's hope to be off food stamps by then. Kim will have to find summer work when the head start program ends next month. And David hopes he can pick up overtime hours at Dunkin Donuts.

This program aired on May 19, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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