More predicted to receive food aid after rule change

Beginning Monday, tens of thousands more Minnesotans will qualify for food assistance, when new guidelines go into place for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- what we used to call food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has increased the income eligibility for food support. A family of four with a gross monthly income of roughly $3,000 or less now qualifies.

County social service agencies across the state are gearing up for a potential flood of families seeking help. The Minnesota Department of Human Services anticipates the change will increase the food support caseload by about 16,000 cases per year, impacting an additional 34,000 people annually.

In Minnesota, the federal program is known as the Food Support Program. As of May of this year, some 425,000 Minnesotans were receiving food support each month.

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In Itasca County, more than 4,200 people benefited from the federal program this past September. That's a nearly 75 percent increase from the same period three years ago.

Terry Friesen, with Itasca County's health and human services division, expects with the guideline changes taking effect Monday, those numbers are going to rise significantly. Friesen said food support is probably the most vital service for people who need help.

"This isn't just a service to families who aren't working," Friesen said. "It's working families and disabled persons and individual working people that are accessing these services, and so it's nice to see that the state and federal government have relaxed the qualification for this program, because food is just a basic need."

Another big change to the program: Before Monday, people with $2,000 or more in assets were disqualified from food support. Now, qualification is based strictly on income.

County social service officials aren't sure what to expect as far as numbers, but they figure it will be a huge additional burden on already stressed caseworkers.

"Our caseloads have increased significantly. We're increasing 20 to 25 percent per year in the number of food support cases we have," said Candy Enblom, financial assistance supervisor for the health, human and veterans services division in Cass County.

Enblom and officials in other counties say the additional cases may mean longer waits for people applying for services.

"We are struggling to stay on top of things with our caseloads. We're very, very busy here. We don't expect to get any more staff because of county budgets," Enblom said. "We try to serve the clients the best that we can."

The numbers are up nationwide. One in eight Americans now gets food assistance, a 70 percent jump since 2007.

Renee Weeks, with Hubbard County Social Services, said she's seen an increase in seniors seeking food assistance. She's also noticing more young families moving in with parents. Weeks said many food service customers are either underemployed in low wage jobs, or they're still looking for work.

"We've had a lot of people who have lost their jobs and they're suddenly needing food," Weeks said. "They've never been in this situation before. They used to make a good living. Now their job is gone, and so now they have to come in for help, and that can be very demoralizing for them."

Lots of folks qualify for food assistance, but many don't get it. A study commissioned by a Minnesota food bank found that more than 175,000 people in the state who are eligible for the program didn't apply. That includes 77 percent of eligible seniors, and nearly a third of the working poor.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said an estimated 70,000 more Minnesotans will be eligible for help under the new guidelines. The correct figure is 34,000. MPR News regrets the error.