Food Stamps: The Recession's Not Over

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I keep reading that the economy is getting better but I think anyone who says this must be talking about fat cats on Wall Street. As for everyone else, take a look at the shocking piece about the Food Stamp program that the New York Times ran on its front page on Sunday.

More than 36 million Americans qualify for and get Food Stamps, an increase of 30 percent or so in just the last two years. The Food Stamp program, says the Times, helps feed nearly 13 percent of American adults and 25 percent of children.

The Food Stamp program, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of several food assistance programs run by the USDA. SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who meets income eligibility requirements can get benefits. Even so, only two-thirds of people eligible for the program apply for and get the benefits. What recipients get is a credit card to use at grocery stores. The cards were worth an average of $101 per month in 2008 for individuals, and $227 for households.

The uptick in SNAP participation exactly parallels the uptick in jobs lost.

SNAP participants can use the money to buy foods, seeds, and food plants. They cannot use the cards for alcohol, tobacco, pet food, supplements, paper goods, or hot prepared foods.

So what's going on? Nearly 15 percent of American households, up a couple of percentage points this year, are considered "food insecure," meaning that they cannot count on a reliable, legally obtained source of food from one day to the next. Surprise! The uptick in SNAP participation exactly parallels the uptick in jobs lost.

What do you have to do to qualify for Food Stamps? For a family of four, your household must make less than $2,389 per month gross, or $1,838 net and meet certain other requirements. An individual can't make more than about $1,000 a month. These days, 36 million Americans make less than that or otherwise qualify for food assistance, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

This doesn't look like an improving economy to me. Or am I missing something?

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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