Jessica Webster of the St. Paul based Legal Services Advocacy project says about 275,000 Minnesotans receive food stamps. Webster wrote the report which estimates 189,000 more state residents are eligible.
"This is a federal resource that we are not utilizing," she says. "By not capturing this resource we have lost $838 million since year 2000."
The federal food stamp traces its roots to the Great Depression of the l930's and was revived as a much larger program in l974. Food stamp participation in this country slumped in the mid l990's. It began rising again early this decade. Some states report double digit increases in participation.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, says the 22-page application form is one reason the program has stagnated. Berglin has introduced a bill this session to trim the application to three pages.
Berglin says other obstacles are a monthly reporting requirement and a rule which caps benefits at a low level if recipients don't use the full allocation every month.
"This (legislation) will end the practice then of penalizing seniors who often times save up their food benefits for a birthday or a holiday and in doing so they lose the value of that month's benefit. The state will no longer, under this proposal, be able to freeze benefits after three months of non-use," she says.
The report also found many people don't know they're eligible for the help or don't have transportation to get to the county office to apply. Some are too embarrassed to ask for help.
Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, says some decline to apply because they don't want be to be seen in public handing over food stamps. In fact, she says, food stamps haven't been stamps for years. The transaction is now handled with a plastic card like a credit card.
"I think that that's taken away a lot of the personal embarrassment that people participating in the program have wanted to avoid. I think that word has gotten out to many populations of low income people and part of that outreach effort is how that part of the program works now," she says.
Several lawmakers are worried that poor nutrition caused in part by the state's low food stamp participation level and by cuts to nutrition programs is harming some of the state's children and older residents.
A 2004 study by Washington University in St. Louis asserts that welfare changes in the l990's tightened food stamp eligibility standards. The result, the authors argue, is more elderly Americans suffer from chronic illnesses because of poor nutrition.
Proposals before Minnesota lawmakers this session include not only changes to try increase food stamp participation, but also add funding for food shelves and restoration of money cut from nutrition programs.