Economy surges, yet food stamp demand remains high

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Volunteer Jennifer Tiemens
Volunteer Jennifer Tiemens weighs food for a client of the PRISM food shelf in Golden Valley. Michelle Ness, PRISM's executive director, says the food shelf serves about 500 families a month, and demand remains strong despite the economic recovery.
Matt Sepic/MPR News

Minnesota's economy is in much better shape than it was a few years ago. Housing prices are rising, and the state's unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in April - the same as it was a decade earlier, well before the Great Recession.

But nearly 504,000 Minnesotans still rely on food stamps, more than double the number of 10 years ago. For many recipients, that financial assistance isn't enough to keep food on the table.

"This is our new normal. We're not waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel," said Michelle Ness, executive director of the PRISM food shelf in Golden Valley.

"The recession, when it started, we said 'let's give it a few years and let's wait and see.' Well here we are. We're not waiting for some great boom to happen. It's folks who are getting re-employed and they're underemployed."

• Previously: Food stamp benefits cut goes into effect, but some want even deeper trim

Ness said her clientele increasingly can and does work, but their jobs don't pay very well. She said the food shelf is still very busy and serves about 500 families a month.

Among the people it serves is a 47-year-old woman who said she cannot work because of medical problems.

Lisa, who did not want to give her last name, said the $80 a month she receives in benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program isn't enough.

"For big things like soups and noodles and stuff like that, it's fine," she said. "But when you run out of milk and eggs and the essentials like juice and stuff like that, it goes real fast."

So she often comes to the PRISM food shelf to pick up additional items.

State Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said underemployment is also part of the reason why so many Minnesotans are still relying on government food support. There are also other factors too.

More people are now eligible for help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In 2010, the state raised the income limit and stopped counting vehicles and savings accounts against applicants.

Jesson said the state also made a big push to sign up eligible people during the recession.

Food stamp use and jobless rate
Food stamp use and jobless rate indexed to 2004.
MPR News

"We don't want children, adults, seniors, anyone going to bed hungry," she said. "That's not good for kids who want to go to school to learn, not good for parents who are out looking for jobs, not good for anyone. So that's one of the reasons that we wanted to make sure that if you're eligible for SNAP you knew about it and we made it easier for those folks to get on it."

Even critics of food stamps acknowledge there's a need.

"A lot of people are still hurting, there's no question," said Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative Twin Cities think tank. Pearlstein, a former United Way board member, said he has seen firsthand how rough life can be for people who are working low-wage jobs.

But although Pearlstein said government should play a role in alleviating hunger, he said the current rate of food stamp use isn't sustainable.

"The government doesn't have the money," he said. "We simply have to find ways of scaling down on government, at least significantly reducing its growth, and we keep on failing."

Congress has tried to scale back food stamp use, and Minnesota's enrollment has fallen 6 percent in the past year.

Colleen Moriarty, the executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, attributes the decline to a drop in efforts to encourage people to seek assistance. When President Obama signed this year's farm bill, bus and radio advertisements for SNAP came to a halt. When those ads were running, people signed up, she said.

"We would see real spikes when we would be out doing that kind of real education to the public about what being on public benefits could mean as far as helping them," she said.

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