For some college grads, getting by means relying on food stamps

College food stamps
Left to right, friends Mollie Thompson, Stephanie Hagen and Astrid Yankosky eat together on Thursday evening, Aug. 16, 2012, on the steps outside Yankosky's apartment. Though Yankosky is on food stamps, most of the vegetables for the meal came from her garden.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

More than 520,000 Minnesotans now receive food stamps. The numbers have soared across the country since the economic downturn. Some of the new names on the food stamp rolls are people you might not expect: recent college graduates.

Brooke Holmgren, 22, has something many young graduates do not -- a job. But it's not the job she imagined she would find after earning a degree in English from St. Catherine University in St. Paul in 2011. She delivers sandwiches for minimum wage.

"In high school, I worked your standard restaurant jobs, and I absolutely hated it," Holmgren said. "I was like, 'This is why I'm going to college, so I don't have to do this,' you know? But now I am doing this."

On a recent night Holmgren cooked dinner in an apartment she shares with two roommates. She is known among her friends as the thrifty one. But despite her full-time job and another cleaning houses on the side, money is tight, and often food is the only thing that can go.

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"I can't not pay a portion of my rent or not pay part of my electricity," she said.

So she used to buy cheap pasta and skip the fresh blueberries. Now Holmgren gets food stamps. The $56 a month in assistance cuts her food bill by about two-thirds, which frees her to buy fruits and vegetables.

Holmgren says she doesn't feel any shame, but she doesn't tell everyone.

Farmers Market
Astrid Yankosky, 25, shops at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. Yankosky graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2010 with an anthropology degree, having studied raw food. With $200 in monthly food stamps, she buys seasonal, high quaility food and cooks large meals to eat all week. Yankowsky uses her food stamp benefits to get by while she teaches refugees in an AmeriCorps program. She intends to go to graduate school.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"My grandma knows, but my mom doesn't know, and I feel like that's just the pride thing for me," Holmgren said. "My mom would probably be like, 'Oh, you're better than that.' I feel like she has that old-school mentality of food support is for losers or for people who don't work hard enough. I think maybe if she knew, and she knows how hard I work, she'd be like, 'OK.' It might change her mind."

Graph: SNAP benefits recipients

Holmgren is one of a small but growing number of young college graduates who receive food stamps, officially labeled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Recent grads are the exception on the food stamp rolls. Census data analyzed by the Minnesota State Demographic Center show they account for only a tiny percentage of overall users and make up very little of the food stamp growth in recent years.

College food stamps
Mollie Thompson, left, and Astrid Yankosky, dish up a meal of sausage and kale with an arugula salad on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012, at Yankosky's Minneapolis apartment. Yankosky said that despite her small income as an AmeriCorps employee, she manages to eat well using fresh vegetables from her garden, food shelves and food stamps.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

But they are growing at a faster rate than food stamp users who are their age with less education. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of young college grads in the program more than doubled both in Minnesota and nationally. In fact, by 2010, 3.9 percent of U.S. graduates with a bachelor's degree were receiving food stamps.

While changes in eligibility account for some of the growth among these young graduates, many have been affected by the sour economy. Carl Van Horn, the director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, is an expert on employment issues.

"We have about 1.5 million new bachelor's degree recipients every year," Van Horn said. "They're piling up, fighting for the same limited number of job opportunities."

A recent Rutgers study found just over half of young graduates with bachelor's degrees are employed full-time. Of those, many are working jobs that do not require a four-year degree. That, says Van Horn, was uncommon in the past.

Food stamps at Farmers Market
The Minneapolis Farmers Market on North Lyndale Avenue is one of many in Minnesota now accepting SNAP (food stamp) benefits. On a recent Saturday, however, the machine was unable to process the food stamp cards. "The PIN mechanism where the customer punches in their PIN, it busted," said Sandy Hill, communications director for the market. Hill said SNAP use is up at the market over last year.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"It was more the anecdote than the rule that a person who went to college ended up in a job that was not tapping his or her talent," Van Horn said. "That was unusual. Now to have it that widespread and have large numbers of people graduating with significant debt, not being able to earn enough money to pay off their loans -- those are relatively new phenomenon."

Van Horn says starting salaries for young grads are down 10 percent -- and the consequences of graduating into a tough economy can linger.

For some grads, food stamps are a bridge to a better future. On a warm weekend morning, Astrid Yankosky, 25, weaves through crowds at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Yankosky graduated from the University of Minnesota honors program in 2010 with an anthropology degree. She now teaches refugees as part of AmeriCorps. She receives a small stipend but sees the job as a path to grad school and a career. She gets by with help from $200 a month in food stamps.

Yankosky is committed to eating well, even on a budget.

"I will buy real food," Yankosky said. "I will. Not calories to hold me over."

For her, that means shopping at co-ops and farmers markets, many of which take food stamps. She walks every aisle, looking for deals.

"I am a testament that you can eat healthy on a low budget," she said. "You have to cook, and gardening doesn't hurt. But it can be done."

With her degree, Yankosky knows she's not the stereotype of a food stamp user but instead an indicator of a trend: More people, across many demographics, need help these days.

"The economy right now is struggling at a point where it's not (just) the stereotypical people who need government assistance anymore," she said. "It's college graduates. It's people who worked their whole lives and got laid off. Spanning all different social and cultural backgrounds. It's a different time."

Nationally, food stamp enrollment is at a record high: more than 46 million people.