Despite early signs of economic recovery, demand for food stamps continues to rise in Oregon.
State social services officials have watched the need rise for months across Oregon, but recently released numbers that show 635,033 Oregonians received food stamps last month ¬≠-- a 31 percent increase over last year -- surprised even them.
Typically, demand slows or drops during the summer months. That hasn't happened this year.
That's what she has seen, too, said Ivonne Lopez, manager of the Milton-Freewater branch of the state's Self-sufficiency Program.
While her office -- which serves residents from Milton-Freewater to Boardman -- has seen the smallest jump in new-client numbers in the state, that's likely because the area had the least far to fall, Lopez speculated. "When the big boom happened in the Bend area, for instance, we didn't see that here."
Staff is used to seeing an increase in food-stamp need from October to February, but this year brought little dip in those numbers during the summer, Lopez said.
Now the seasonal applications are coming in once again, she added. "We keep thinking it will taper off, but it continues to grow."
The Oregon Food Bank is also setting records. The bank gave away 897,000 emergency food boxes in the past year, more than ever before.
"We've never seen distribution of emergency food boxes at levels this high," Jean Kempe-Ware, an Oregon Food Bank spokeswoman, told The Oregonian.
Some of that food goes to Milton-Freewater, to be distributed twice a week via The Breadbasket, noted Dean Beamer, vice chairman of the agency's board.
The local need mirrors the state, he said. "We're getting more families."
The Breadbasket is serving about 130 families a week; people are allowed to access the free groceries twice a month. At this time of year, the agency is able to give out plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables donated from local gardens, in addition to the staples coming in from the Oregon Food Bank, Beamer said.
Vic Todd, administrator for the state's office of self-sufficiency, said the numbers suggest families will continue to struggle as the economy slowly recovers and laid-off workers use up their unemployment benefits. A bad flu season, he noted, could also spark greater need.
The growth in need seems to be coming from professionals who have lost their jobs and those who have never sought assistance before, according to state caseworkers.
Pay cuts, layoffs and fewer work hours all mean families that had never had trouble putting food on the table are now struggling to get by, officials say.
Her office is serving 2,025 food-stamp clients in the Milton-Freewater area, up more than 20 percent from a year ago, Lopez said. "We are definitely seeing people we have not seen in the past, people who have always worked and never needed a subsidy."
Often new applicants are surprised at how little food money they qualify for. For a two-person household with zero income, the total is $280 in food stamps. Add in unemployment benefits and that figure drops, she pointed out.
But there are other components that can make even an insignificant food-stamp amount worth going through the process. Children can be enrolled in the free- and reduced-cost lunch program and some utility assistance might be available, Lopez said.
Receiving government help with basic needs carries a stigma that Oregon is mindful of, she explained. "We have tried really hard to change that. We changed to a new intake model that is customer driven and focused."
That means people are seen within 30 minutes of handing in an application, to find out if they can get help, she said. Her staff is reminded these are tough times for everyone. "We want to make it as easy as possible to not feel shame. If they need (food stamps) and they are eligible, that's what it is here for."
In order to qualify for food stamps a family of four can earn no more than $3,400 per month. Assets, such as a house or car, aren't considered.
At least three-quarters of the households receiving benefits for June had some income, according to an analysis by the Department of Human Services.
About 40 percent of the food stamp recipients in June were younger than 18. Older Oregonians, meanwhile, have been slow to take advantage.
Though people 60 and older make up about 16 percent of the state's population, they accounted for only 8 percent of the June numbers.
Todd said seniors may have incomes that are more stable as compared to younger families. It's also possible that they can't make it to the state office for help, don't want to ask for government handouts or are getting food from other sources.
Whatever the case, state labor economist Art Ayre says it's difficult to tell which group may be suffering the most during these difficult economic times.
"We did look at unemployment by age not too long ago," he said, "it looked like everyone is taking a hit."
The biggest mistake people can make is waiting too long to get help, Lopez said. "It makes it much harder to help them ¬≠-- their need is much bigger than what we can offer."
A good place to start is by calling her office, where a receptionist can ask some pre-screening questions to give people an idea if they fit state guidelines.
Oregon also offers a Web page with an eligibility calculator for food stamp benefit only at apps.state.or.us/fsestimate. However, local offices can usually give the most accurate information, Lopez believes.
"We encourage people if they are needing to apply...the worst thing than can happen is that we deny them."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.
For more information, Milton-Freewater residents may call 938-6627.